Attorney general answers to voters, not lawmakers

Washington's attorney general seems to be using his authority properly.

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Attorney General Rob McKenna has ruffled some feathers in the Legislature as well as the governor's mansion.

And that's why a state Senate committee this week discussed the attorney general's authority to independently initiate a lawsuit or refuse to take legal action.

The huffing and puffing of lawmakers is simply unnecessary. It's clear that McKenna has the power to act independently. Washington's attorney general is elected directly by the people, not appointed by the governor or the Legislature. As a result, he answers only to the voters.

Yes, McKenna does have a list of mandates such as defending the state (the people) in lawsuits. He clearly fulfills those obligations.

The beef with McKenna, a Republican, appears to be the fact he used his authority earlier this year to join a lawsuit on behalf of the state to challenge the constitutionality of President Obama's health-care reform law.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat and former state attorney general, was not happy.

"I don't know who he represents. He doesn't represent me," Gregoire said. "I don't think he represents a million and a half Washingtonians that will be helped by this. I don't think he represents small business that will be helped by this. I don't think he represents Medicare people who will be helped by this."

Ironcially, when Gregoire was attorney general she didn't run to the governor or the Legislature to seek permission before taking action.

It's not necessarily McKenna's job as the state's top lawyer to decide whether health-care reform (or any law) is good policy, but whether it is allowable under the Constitution.

McKenna believes the federal health-care measure unconstitutionally imposes new requirements on Washington state and on its citizens. It's a legal argument that would seem to have merit enough to be tested in court.

Also irritated with McKenna is state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark.

Goldmark, a Democrat, wanted the attorney general to appeal a Superior Court decision that gave an Okanogan PUD the right to condemn state land in order to build a new power transmission line across pristine sections of the Methow Valley.

McKenna declined saying his office followed all the normal procedures -- trying to gauge whether legal errors were made by the trial court judge and considering the likelihood of an appeal's success. In short, it was determined it was a case not worth pursing.

"As an independently elected official, the attorney general is accountable to the people rather than any particular elected or appointed official," McKenna spokesman Dan Sytman said via e-mail. "This ensures that legal matters are pursued, or not pursued, based on the law and nothing else."

If the Legislature seeks to usurp McKenna's power it would be an effort to undermine the state constitution and a slap to voters.

The attorney general answers only to the people of Washington state.

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