In Our View: Defining the AG

State Supreme Court ruling affirms McKenna’s authority in new health care case

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Rob McKenna and Chris Gregoire disagree on whether Americans should be compelled by the federal government to purchase health insurance (or pay a fine). Their disagreement is no surprise, because McKenna, the state attorney general, is a Republican, and Gov. Gregoire is a Democrat. This isn’t the first time they’ve had ideological differences, and it won’t be the last.

Until Thursday, their disagreement over health insurance created confusion over whether McKenna should add his name (and thus, the state’s) to the legal challenge of the new federal law. But that confusion has been cleared by Thursday’s state Supreme Court ruling that sided with McKenna.

The nine justices of varied political beliefs ruled unanimously that McKenna has the authority to lead the state’s challenge to the new federal law. This was the correct call for several reasons, not the least of which is that it clears up the confusion. But the greater reality is that the new law deserves to be thoroughly explored through myriad legal challenges at the level of the states, and then in the ultimate arena of resolution: the U.S. Supreme Court. Expecting McKenna and Washington to remain uninvolved in the state-level challenge — while other legal cases are pursued by other states — was illogical.

The ruling by the state Supreme Court will have a lasting impact. As McKenna said later Thursday, “It’s important that the state’s constitutionally established, independently elected attorney general, whomever it may be, have the authority to protect the legal rights of the state and its people in the years to come.”

And what’s especially interesting about this story is Gregoire’s pre-gubernatorial role. She used to be the state attorney general, and a fine one. Watching Gregoire and McKenna disagree on the federal health-care law presented a curious dilemma. If an attorney general and a former attorney general cannot agree on the role of the attorney general, what hope is there that all Washingtonians can resolve the matter? Well, that’s precisely why we have the state Supreme Court.

Another interesting side story: Gregoire actually could extend this dispute further if she liked. Thursday’s ruling, which took no stance on the federal law itself, left open the possibility of the governor’s ordering McKenna to stop his advocacy in this matter. But she said this will not happen. Gregoire explained: “State law is clear that the attorney general should consult with the governor before deciding to file an action on behalf of the state, and though that did not happen here, I am hopeful that will happen in future cases.”

And here’s another interesting side story: Republican McKenna is running for the same job from which Democrat Gregoire has announced she will retire. How well McKenna balances the supposedly nonpartisan, apolitical duties of attorney general as he campaigns for the ultra-political governor’s post remains a huge question.

But regardless of how the new federal health care law plays out in the various courts, the people of this state already know that both McKenna and Gregoire have served well in their respective roles, despite the difference in their party affiliations. Many newspapers, including The Columbian, have endorsed both through the years. The two leaders have cooperated on many issues and served as constructive adversaries on other matters. And in that regard, Washingtonians have been well-served.