Saturday, December 03, 2022

Op-Ed: How to wreck the Idaho Attorney General’s office

by JIM JONES/Special to The Press
| March 14, 2022 12:21 PM

It would not hurt for Attorney General wannabe Raul Labrador to spend a little time learning what the AG does. It is quite obvious from his campaign literature that he has no clue. His proposals sound sophomoric at best.

For instance, Labrador says he will “convene the Idaho bar, legal academics, health officials, and local law enforcement to reopen Idaho’s courts.” Whoops! He forgot to include the Supreme Court, which is the only entity that has the constitutional authority to run the courts. I don’t think the Court would allow Labrador to intermeddle in the court system. In fact, the Attorney General is a frequent litigant before the Supreme Court and must necessarily respect its authority as a separate branch of government.

Labrador speaks of the “controversial consolidated structure” of the AG’s office. It is not the least bit controversial among those who understand what that structure is and how it works. Idaho’s constitutional framers intended the Attorney General “to be the adviser of all state officers.” And so it was until the late 1950s, when some agencies began hiring their own lawyers. That often resulted in captive lawyers who told agency heads what they wanted to hear, not what the law required.

During those bad old days, it was not out of the ordinary to have State agencies crossing swords with each other in court, since many agencies had their own legal empire. Nor was it unusual for one agency to be periodically starved for legal help, while others had an overabundance. A survey conducted in 1985 found that Idaho had almost twice the number of state-paid lawyers per capita than other nearby states where all state lawyers were consolidated in the Attorney General’s office (Oregon, Utah and Colorado). Yet, three Republican AGs (Kidwell, Leroy and me) had consolidation legislation vetoed by two Democrat Governors. It should not have been a partisan issue.

In 1995, Al Lance was able to get legislation approved to consolidate the AG office so that there would be uniform staff policies, assurance of quality legal work, and sharing of work across agency lines. It substantially reduced the cost of state legal services, while increasing efficiency throughout the system. Labrador’s idea of going back to the bad old days is pure nonsense.

Labrador displays no understanding of the AG’s role in giving opinions on legal issues. That role is to provide the government with honest, straight-forward advice when asked–saying what the law is, not what the AG wishes it was. That’s what we expect of our personal attorneys–how to keep us out of trouble, instead of getting us into it.

Labrador criticizes Attorney General Lawrence Wasden for having issued legal opinions which concluded that several bills on hot-button issues were on shaky constitutional ground. That is exactly what the Attorney must do to keep the State out of hot water in court. Wasden has been remarkably correct with his cautionary legal opinions. When the Legislature ignores his advice, Idaho generally loses in court. We have paid out millions of dollars in attorney fees for the defense of unconstitutional legislation.

Lawrence Wasden understands that demagogues will vilify him for legal opinions that correctly state the law. But, just like a judge, he must stand up for the rule of law, even when he personally disagrees with it. Wasden has exhibited an incredible amount of courage in that regard–something that Labrador could not begin to understand.

Labrador envisions himself as a partner of extremist legislators who have caused such chaos and disruption in our government. He has said that he “will have their best interests in mind.” Wasden envisions himself as a servant of the people of Idaho, guided by the Constitutions of Idaho and the United States. The easiest way to wreck the office of the Idaho Attorney General is to elect someone who does not understand that the job is not at all about pursuing a political agenda, but is everything about standing up for the law.

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Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho Attorney General (1983-1991) and 12 years as a Justice on the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017). He is currently a regular contributor to The Hill online news. He blogs at JJCommonTater.

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