Guest Opinions

For Idaho attorney general, centralized effort was and is best course

As the alternative candidate for attorney general in the last election, a summary of my thoughts about Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s conflicts with the governor and some legislators may be instructive.

I completely agree that the federal government should not be allowed to turn Idaho into a spent nuclear fuel trash can. We are dealing with an entity that agreed to a timetable for processing dangerous waste in exchange for being allowed to store that waste here.

Currently this entity has no capacity, or no will, to honor that contract. The feds should be given two choices: process the waste if you can; or, if you cannot, pay damages and negotiate a new contract. The feds, dangling a shiny new contract to study and store new waste, seek to induce Idaho to waive the breaches (effectively gutting the existing contract). To be sure, the new deal puts Eastern Idaho politicians like Sen. Bart Davis in a difficult bind. But new contracts with an entity that has already shown no interest in honoring its existing contracts are contrary to sound business judgment — especially contracts dealing with dangerous and largely unmanageable nuclear waste.

With respect to allowing individual agencies including the Legislature to hire and fire their own lawyers as opposed to having the Attorney General’s Office provide all of the needed representations, I completely agree with the Republican-controlled Legislature, which initially legislated centralization. It was a good idea then and it remains a good idea. There are efficiency and cost justifications, but the real benefit of centralization is “independent legal advice.”

Given that our legislators and administrators have demonstrated difficulty adhering to the law and the Constitution, the last thing they need is the power to hire and fire the attorney responsible for advising them. A courageous and ethical attorney will tell their boss inconvenient truths. However, it cannot be denied that when “the job” and “the truth” collide, “the truth” will often be the victim.

Indeed, viewed in context, the expressed desires of many legislators to empower the Legislature to hire its own attorney and to dock the budget of the attorney general substantiates this concern. Given the proven accuracy of the advice given by the Attorney General’s Office, it is clear these desires are not a response to incompetency. Rather, legislators who do not like being told “no” are seeking to gag the attorney general by threatening to marginalize (fire) him.

It must be disconcerting to the governor and the legislative leaders, who are used to having their way in Idaho, to have their actions questioned or impeded by one of their own. However, given that it is his job to speak the truth, this discontent does not justify attempts to bully the attorney general into keeping his mouth shut and nodding his head. These tactics are not going to change until voters kick these power-mongering bullies out of office. In the meantime, I am grateful we have a principled and ethical attorney general like Lawrence Wasden.

Bruce Bistline is an attorney in Boise who has practiced law in Idaho since 1976. He ran as a Democrat for attorney general in 2014.