A week ago, when it seemed all but certain that Hillary Clinton and not Donald Trump would be the nation’s 45th president, a relatively obscure organization sent out a little noticed news release offering a bold promise.
The organization claimed that it “may prove the most effective check on both an overweening federal government and growing abuses by liberal prosecutors.” It would be a “last line of defense” against health care, immigration, climate change regulations.
And it would have been right. The organization is the Republican Attorneys General Association, which sued, often with success, to delay or block many of President Barack Obama’s most far-reaching domestic policies.
“With Republicans near certain to hold the House, and potentially the Senate, Mrs. Clinton will undoubtedly build on Mr. Obama’s extralegal habit of ruling via executive order or regulation,” said the organization, whose ranks grew to 29 attorneys general as a result of GOP gains last week.
We cite the press release not to diminish the organization’s lack of political prescience. Most experts (and editorial writers) got it wrong.
But the premature missive does underscore the importance of state attorneys general – and of Gov. Jerry Brown’s impending decision to nominate a replacement for Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is moving to the U.S. Senate in January.
Several names have been floated: Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Oakland; former Assemblyman Dario Frommer of Los Angeles; Federal Elections Commission member Ann Ravel; and Brown’s chief aide, Nancy McFadden, among others.
Each would be formidable. Having watched Brown in his current incarnation for six years, there no doubt are others on his short list, perhaps including some who will be leaving the Obama administration Justice Department. Tony West, who is married to Harris’ younger sister, is formerly the third-ranking Justice Department attorney.
Brown, a former attorney general and the son of an attorney general, understands the importance of the post. He surely understands that whoever he nominates must have the legal and political chops not just to represent California, but to take a leadership role nationally in confronting Trump administration policies that are likely to be anathema to California’s interests.
Beyond bringing criminal cases and defending the state against lawsuits, attorneys general can decide what to investigate, what cases to appeal and which civil laws should take priority.
The issues run the gamut: The right to privacy, consumer affairs, energy policy, immigration enforcement, environmental regulation, and, most fundamentally, a state’s ability to enforce its own constitutional laws, especially when Uncle Sam reaches too far.
In California, the next attorney general will have to deal with unresolved cases such as Harris’ pimping prosecution of the purveyors of Backpage, “the world’s top online brothel,” which the defendants have called a First Amendment overreach. He or she also could be called upon to defend this state’s gun control laws, many of which run counter to the National Rifle Association’s vision.
The NRA spent $52 million on the campaign nationally, much of it to elect Trump. After Trump won, they proclaimed that “Trump’s victory repudiates the assertion by gun control advocates that the political calculus regarding the Second Amendment has changed” – notwithstanding that Californians did endorse more far-reaching gun control by approving Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Proposition 63.
In that email from the Republican Attorneys General Association, the Republicans warned that Clinton, if she won, would pick the replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, “as well as … pack appeals courts with liberal nominees.”
Of course, Trump now will nominate Scalia’s replacement. And Democratic attorneys general will fight any Trump overreaches. We hope that that litigation and “last line of defense” will get ample leadership and help from Brown’s nominee.