Defending laws, howling at their makers

By Scott Mooneyham | Nov 29, 2013

RALEIGH — Republican leaders, from the governor's office to the legislature, are outraged, yes, outraged to find that Attorney General Roy Cooper is throwing around his political opinions about the laws that they have been passing.

A big part of Cooper's job is to defend the laws of the state.

But, pissst, here's a little secret. Have you heard? Don't tell anyone.

Cooper is planning on running for governor.

So, a Democratic attorney general has been loudly barking about a Republican legislature and governor and the very conservative laws that they have been passing.

Cooper has called controversial election law restrictions a "hodgepodge of very bad ideas."

He has characterized other legislation passed by Republican lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory — including blocking Medicaid expansion, curbing unemployment benefits and providing publicly-funded private school vouchers — as giving in to a "playground of extremist fantasies."

By the way, did I mention that Cooper is running for governor?

In response, McCrory has said that Cooper should not be publicizing his personal opinions. "Good lawyers don't do that," the governor told an audience at a Washington think tank event.

McCrory's general counsel, Bob Stephens, said Cooper's remarks represented a conflict of interest and left no choice but to hire an outside lawyer to represent the state in a lawsuit over the elections law (a move Cooper called unnecessary).

State Republican Party officials started referring to Cooper as a "part-time attorney general."

By the way, did I mention that McCrory, too, is planning to run for governor in 2016, and that he and some of his agency heads recently attended a two-day shindig during the work week to raise money for a nonprofit that is buying ads promoting him?

Electoral politics and the law and the duties of public officeholders can be uneasy bedfellows.

Cooper is not the first state attorney general to run for governor, assuming he follows through on his plans. In this state, he would be the first, at least in over a century, to run while being in the opposing political party of the governor and the majority party in the state legislature.

It puts him in an awkward position.

But compared to some other situations around the country, his actions are not unique. They pale in comparison to decisions by some governors and attorneys general to fail to defend state laws in court with which they politically disagree.

His criticism of legislators, the governor and their policy decisions also raises a point that had already been raised earlier in the year: If state legislators don't like it, they can do something about it.

The state constitution gives the power to determine the attorney general's duties to state lawmakers.

They have already been discussing assigning some lawyers under his supervision to state agencies, and a budget provision strongly implies that such a move will occur in 2014.

Given the political realities, maybe a few should go to the governor's office and the legislature.