ST GEORGE – Does knowledge trump experience? This is a question that has arisen in the race for Republican nominee for Washington County Attorney.
With the June 24 primaries just over three weeks away, challenger Nathan Caplin seeks to unseat incumbent Brock Belnap. Caplin touts his knowledge of constitutional and civil law as a needed asset for the county as it faces potential confrontations with the federal government. He has a background in civil litigation and is also the city prosecutor for Hildale, where he handles a myriad of cases, albeit on the misdemeanor-level.
Supporters of Belnap are quick to point out Caplin has yet to prosecute a felony-level case in his professional career. This inexperience, they claim, will not serve the county well.
“When you are dealing with thousands of felonies a year, the last thing you want is inexperience. Brock has the experience needed to run this county’s attorney office,” said Marshall McConkie, city prosecutor for both LaVerkin and Springdale, as a part of his endorsement on Belnap’s campaign website.
In response to his critics on the matter, Caplin said:
I’ve passed two bar exams, completed a judicial clerkship as an attorney, and served as the city prosecutor during high-stakes litigation in one of Utah’s most culturally unique areas, which (as an outsider) requires not only expertise in prosecution, but also a unique understanding of constitutional law, negotiation skills and cultural awareness. I teach history at Dixie State University, a position I love. I’m a civil litigation attorney at one of the best law firms in southern Utah.
Caplin also said another key to his success is extensive graduate education, which includes not only a doctorate in law, but a master’s degree in U.S. history. In his scholarly writing, he has concentrated on civil rights and constitutional law.
“When it comes to constitutional law and civil rights law, I believe many may concede that the challenger in this race has the upper hand,” Caplin said.
The Dixie Republican Forum recently gave Caplin its endorsement. The Forum is unaffiliated with the Republican Party which does not endorse candidates until after the primary. Dixie Republican Forum currently has about 50-plus dues-paying members, Larry Meyers, one of its founders, said, with an average of 25-30 of those attending the forum luncheons. The vote for endorsement came by 2/3 vote of its dues-paying members present at a May meeting.
“Though both candidates are well-qualified, many of our members were impressed with Caplin’s platform of returning to Constitutional principles and being prepared to oppose federal overreach, in order to protect local government authority and individual rights,” Dixie Republican Forum Chairman James Stasinos said. “These are core values of our organization.”
Travis Christiansen, a partner at Boyack Christiansen & Chambers PLLC, a full service law firm, was nonspecific on who he favors.
“I think Brock has done a good job generally, Christiansen said of Belnap. “He does handle a lot of the high profile cases, but he doesn’t seem to be in the trenches with his staff attorneys. Caplin’s relative inexperience may make it hard for him in the office.”
Though the topic of his “relative experience” has been an issue brought up in previous debates, it hasn’t stopped area mayors from supporting Caplin, according to his campaign website. Among his supporters are St. George Mayor Jon Pike and Washington City Mayor Ken Neilson.
“Caplin knows business, he knows law, and he knows the Constitution,” Neilson said. “He is the best candidate to fight crime, defend the constitution, listen to citizens, and defend traditional values. I have full confidence that Caplin is the most qualified candidate for county attorney.”
Conversely, Belnap is supported by members of county and municipal law enforcement. Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher said he has endorsed Belnap. St. George Police Chief Marlon Stratton has also endorsed Belnap, according to Belnap’s campaign website.
“I am fighting hard to win the vote of every citizen in Washington County,” Belnap said. “The only endorsement that matters is the endorsement of the voters on June 24.”
Belnap has 15 years experience with Washington County Attorney’s Office, and worked under Washington County Attorney Eric Ludlow before he was appointed as a Fifth District Court judge. While under Ludlow, Belnap handled civil and fraud cases, as well as other types of criminal cases.
Of his own experience before becoming Washington County Attorney, Belnap said:
My specialty was white collar because Ludlow thought fraud and civil were similar. I prosecuted embezzlement, counterfeiting, securities fraud, and exploitation of vulnerable adults cases. I worked on the Martinez aggravated homicide and did all the briefing. I prosecuted child sex abuse and an automobile homicide involving an unborn child. For a time, I handled a full prosecutor’s case load including drug cases, etc., when we lost (two) deputies.
As to the county attorney’s job description, Belnap said it is to prosecute crimes and make sure criminals do not go unpunished.
“I have 15 years on the front lines in the fight against crime in Washington County, and we are winning,” Belnap said. “Our team prosecutes over 3,000 cases a year, ranging from misdemeanors to capital murders. We fight hard – but we fight fair. We hold criminals accountable, and we uphold victims’ rights.”
Belnap also said he feels the county attorney’s most important constitutional duty is to be the ultimate protector of each citizen’s liberty.
“The most dangerous power government has is the power to take away an individual’s personal freedom,” he said. “The guilty should be prosecuted to the fullest extent, but the innocent must be protected.”
The county is also currently in an important legal battle to preserve people’s access to public lands, and to protect people’s constitutional rights, Belnap said. Right now Washington County is involved in suing the Bureau of Land Management for local control of the back-country roads.
“I am also fighting to protect the county from the endangered species act and from overreaching federal regulations. Those are critical legal battles we are fighting right now, and experience does matter,” Belnap said.
“While I can’t comment on Nathan Caplin, having not worked with him,” Capt. Kyle Whitehead, who leads the Washington County Drug Task Force, said, “the Task Force has had a good working relationship with Brock Belnap and his team. We have always had good rapport and found him to be impartial and knowledgeable.”
Belnap helped create the Washington County Drug Task Force as a way to better combat narcotics within the county.
The Mayors Veteran Council will be hosting a meet and great with both Belnap and Caplin on June 11 at 5 p.m. The event will be held at the St George Vet Center at 1664 S Dixie Drive in St George.
St. George News Editor-in-Chief Joyce Kuzmanic and Assistant Editor Mori Kessler contributed to this story.
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