OPINION: An Idaho Attorney General transition that courts danger
| December 30, 2022 1:00 AM
As far back as I can remember, transitions in the Idaho Attorney General’s office have been rather seamless and non-political. The manner in which I took over the office from David Leroy after the 1982 election is typical. I informed the entire staff that anyone who was doing a good job for the state would have a place in my office. And that is how it was with those who preceded me and those who followed.
In 1971, when Tony Park, a Democrat, replaced Bob Robson, a Republican, the transition was handled in that fashion. Tony often told staff members that he was the only politician in the office. Deputies were to concern themselves strictly with the law. Wayne Kidwell, a Republican who took over the office from Tony in 1975, gave the same message to staff. He retained Rudy Barchas as head of the consumer protection unit, even after Rudy volunteered that he’d voted for Tony in the election. Wayne wanted the best person for the job, not a political pal. And that’s how it should be.
Raul Labrador’s transition to the office has thus far been a startling break from the established tradition. Labrador announced early in his campaign against incumbent Lawrence Wasden that he intended to run a political office. His first two hires for top jobs in the office are right-wing zealots. This portends poorly for the rule of law in Idaho. Neither of them is licensed yet to practice law in Idaho. The tradition in Idaho has been to hire Idaho lawyers who are familiar with the legal lay of the land in the Gem State. And I can attest that Idaho lawyers are every bit as good as any from out of state.
During his campaign, Labrador unfairly disparaged the deputies, falsely contending that the office “needs to have better lawyers.” He let it be known that he intended to fire staff members. This unwarranted behavior has had a demoralizing effect on the staff, undoubtedly fueling the unprecedented exodus of talented lawyers from the office.
Idaho’s pre-eminent political reporter, Betsy Russell, recently reported that 24 staff members have announced their departure from the office since Labrador won the GOP primary in May. The important Civil Litigation Division of the office has been hollowed out. Other deputies are waiting to see whether they can continue to give legal advice and representation to their state agencies without political intrusion by the new management. If they can’t give unbiased legal help, they may well join the exodus.
The expertise and institutional knowledge of the departing attorneys has proven invaluable to the state’s legal fortunes. An example is Brett DeLange, who I hired in 1990 to handle consumer protection issues. During the last 32 years, Brett became known nationwide in consumer protection circles, particularly for his expertise in pursuing giant corporations that marketed dangerous products to Idahoans — tobacco, opioids, vaping products and the like. His dogged efforts were instrumental in recovering nearly a billion dollars from those companies and others that victimized Idaho consumers. Idaho will sorely miss his valuable services when he retires in January. There are many similar tales of competent, hard-working deputies who have decided to leave state service because of uncertainty about the future of the office.
Labrador is courting danger for the state’s legal interests with his unfortunate handling of the transition to date. But he could stop the exodus of critical legal talent from the office by pledging to staff that he would observe the rule of law and by allowing the state’s lawyers to do what lawyers are supposed to do — represent their client agencies ethically and responsibly. That is the tradition of the office and it has served the State well to this date.
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Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho Attorney General and 12 years as a justice on the Idaho Supreme Court. He is a regular columnist for The Hill online news. He blogs at JJCommonTater.com.