Wash. lawmakers take aim at AG's office in bill

Jessica M. Karmasek Jan. 17, 2012, 12:35pm


OLYMPIA, Wash. (Legal Newsline) - A bill introduced this week in the Washington Legislature takes aim at the state attorney general's powers.

In particular, Senate Bill 6286 would preclude current Attorney General Rob McKenna from taking legal action against the wishes of top state officials, including the governor.

Under the bill, which revises the statutory powers of the attorney general, the office must "consult with and advise the governor, members of the Legislature and other state officers, when requested, give written opinions upon all constitutional or legal questions relating to the duties of such officers."

"The attorney general shall also represent the state and all officials, departments, boards, commissions and agencies of the state in the courts, and before all administrative tribunals or bodies of any nature, in all legal or quasi legal matters, hearings or proceedings when a statute grants the attorney general authority over the subject matter or a state officer with authority over the subject matter requests representation," the legislation states.

"The attorney general may decline to provide such representation only if the matter is not well-grounded in fact, or not warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for a change in law, or is interposed for an improper purpose such as to harass another party or to cause unnecessary delay or increased litigation costs."

The bill was introduced for first reading Monday and was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee as of Tuesday afternoon.

Sens. Adam Kline of Seattle, Karen Keiser of Kent, Jeanne Kohl-Welles of Seattle and Karen Fraser of Olympia sponsored the bill. They are all Democrats.

A spokeswoman for McKenna told The Associated Press the bill would turn the Attorney General's Office into a "mere mouthpiece" for state officials' interests.

"It's the job of the attorney general to balance the interests of individual state officials with the legal interests of the state and of the people as a whole," Janelle Guthrie told the AP. "Sometimes that requires our office to take positions that are unpopular with other elected officials or individual state agencies."

In September, the Washington Supreme Court upheld McKenna's authority to remain part of a multistate lawsuit challenging President Barack Obama's federal health care law.

The Court denied the city of Seattle's request to require McKenna, a Republican, to withdraw from the lawsuit.

The city argued McKenna overstepped his authority when he joined more than a dozen state attorneys general in filing the suit in late March 2010, after the law passed.

The State argued the courts have consistently recognized that the attorney general's constitutional and statutory role requires him or her to exercise independent legal judgment that takes into account the legal interests of the state of Washington as a whole when determining how to best protect its legal rights.

The state's high court agreed with the Attorney General's Office.

The state's Democratic governor, Christine Gregoire, is in favor of Obama's health care reform and has expressed her displeasure at McKenna's involvement in the multistate lawsuit.

In a statement following McKenna's filing, she said, "I completely disagree with the attorney general's decision and he does not represent me."

A total of 14 states, later joined by 12 others, filed a challenge to the law in 2010. The 26 states contend that its individual mandate requiring that all Americans purchase health insurance or face a $695 penalty every year is unconstitutional.

The states filed a petition in September to have their challenge heard immediately by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The nation's high court, which agreed in November to hear the case, will hear oral arguments on the four issues involved in the challenge to the law over three days in March.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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