In our view: Keep the AG Strong

Misguided effort by legislators would dilute the powers of a crucial office



Less than two weeks into this year’s legislative session and we’ve already got a contender for the “Worst Idea of the Year Award.” A few grouchy Democrats in Olympia want to defang the state attorney general’s office, make it less independent and more subservient to the governor and to agency heads. In other words, further politicize the state’s most powerful officer of the law.

The only good thing we can say about this stinker is that its four sponsors (so far) include no one from Clark County, to our community’s good fortune.

Notice our use of the term “further politicize.” Democrats will argue that the attorney general’s office already was politicized back when Republican AG Rob McKenna signed onto a multistate challenge of the national health care reform law. McKenna argued that he was acting within his role as watchdog for the better interests of Washingtonians. Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, disagreed.

Now, Senate Bill 6286 would require the attorney general to play well with others on matters not already covered by state statues. The bill’s sponsors include state Sens. Adam Kline of Seattle, Karen Keiser of Kent, Jeanne Kohl-Welles of Seattle and Karen Fraser of Olympia. We wonder if they would be so eager to dilute the powers of the attorney general if the current AG were a Democrat. Maybe, but we doubt it.

Washingtonians are well-served by having a relatively independent attorney general, whatever political party that person might represent, and especially if that party is opposite the governor’s. McKenna and Gregoire have proved that theory over the past several years; each has served well in their roles.

And an interesting pairing of partisan offices this has proved to be. Gregoire is a former state attorney general. McKenna is running for governor. With that trend of succession, why would Washingtonians possibly want to make either office more subordinate to the other, or to state agency directors? Kline fumbled for an answer when he described McKenna’s enrolling the state among opponents of the new health care law: “There are a lot of people in the state of Washington who stand to gain from this act, and their attorney general is not representing their interests,” Kline said. “He’s doing it cowboy style; he’s doing it solo.”

So, from the arguable role of cowboy, the Democrats would redefine the attorney general as a roped and bound critter branded by partisan politicians and self-serving bureaucrats. Insufficient wiggle room there, as we see it. The AG’s current autonomous authority works much better.

Besides, the judiciary already has weighed in rather compellingly. Last September the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously in this matter, that McKenna has the authority to lead the state’s challenge to the federal health care law. Remember, that federal law ultimately will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. And as McKenna said after the September decision, “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 for years to come.”

And as we pointed out in an editorial at the time, Gregoire seems to understand this. She could have issued an executive order for McKenna to abandon involvement in the federal case, but she declined.

Legislators have more important things to worry about — like resolving a $1 billion budget deficit — to be distracted by romping off onto partisan tangents.