One of the most critical, and most difficult, things lawyers do is tell their clients “no.” That is, tell clients that a course of action they want to take would violate the law, breach an agreement or violate the Constitution.
This is one of the lessons that I teach my law students and the young lawyers who work with me. As lawyers, we have an obligation to support the rule of law, and not just tell clients what they might want to hear.
According to recent reports, Gov. Butch Otter and the Idaho Legislature plan to punish our state’s attorney general, Lawrence Wasden, for doing his job. Wasden has read the Idaho Constitution and knows that it would be a fool’s errand to sue the federal government for the “return” of public lands that Idaho never owned in the first place. He has also read Idaho’s INL agreement and wants the federal government to honor its cleanup timetable. For these and other imagined transgressions, Otter and Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis want to cut the attorney general’s budget and hire lawyers who will agree with whatever silly notion they may hatch.
Wasden represents the people of Idaho. We have elected Wasden to serve as our chief legal officer four times. Wasden has professional and constitutional obligations to his clients — the people of the state of Idaho.
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As our state’s chief legal officer, the attorney general has a duty to protect the people from elected and appointed officials who do not follow the law. The attorney general needs to call balls and strikes as they go across the plate, and not bow down to political pressure, even from fellow Republicans.
The plan by Otter and the Legislature to gut the Attorney General’s Office is yet another example of the free-spending ways of our Republican-controlled governor’s office and Legislature. Indeed, Otter and his Legislature liberally spend taxpayer money hiring private lawyer friends who are willing to support their political follies. A few examples:
▪ In December, it was reported that Mr. Otter had spent $142,000 in two months to employ a young lawyer who, according to the lawyer’s website, had been in private practice for less than a year.
▪ The Legislature has given itself a $1 million slush fund for hiring private lawyers, which it has used to hire some of the most expensive law firms in the state.
▪ The governor and Legislature have another $1 million-plus slush fund called the Constitutional Defense Fund that for the last 20 years has poured the public’s money into a string of losing lawsuits.
Otter and the Legislature should not punish Wasden for doing his job. And when they are told no by the Attorney General’s Office, Otter and the Legislature should not be able to circumvent that advice and use taxpayer money to shop for private lawyers who will assist in their political posturing and pursuit of frivolous lawsuits.
Nels Mitchell practices law with Fisher Rainey Hudson and is a part-time teacher at the University of Idaho Law School. He ran for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat.