AG Candidates Spar over Whether They Have to Defend State Laws

October 14, 2014 AT 10:20 AM

The candidates for attorney general in their first debate Sunday clashed over how they would handle challenges to state laws, with the Democrat saying she would not defend Wisconsin's voter ID law and other measures and the Republican arguing the state's top cop must take on that work.

"When you take an oath to defend the Constitution (and state laws), you don't cross your fingers and say, 'Except for these I don't like or don't agree with,'" said Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel, the Republican in the race.

The Democrat, Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ, said attorneys general have to exercise their independent judgment to determine if laws are constitutional. That's why she said she would not defend the voter ID law and the state's recently overturned ban on same-sex marriage. (She also has said she would not defend a 2013 law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where they perform the procedure.)

"The attorney general is not a robot," Happ said.

While Schimel stressed the importance of defending state laws, he also said he was "not sure" if he would defend campaign finance laws limiting the ability of issue groups to collaborate with candidates — laws that are at the center of an investigation of Republican Gov. Scott Walker's campaign and his allies. Outgoing GOP Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has declined to represent state election officials in a lawsuit because he does not agree with their interpretation of those laws.