By Joan Biskupic -
IN the ornate Chinese Ballroom of Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, nine Republican state attorneys general gathered last month at a long, white-cloth covered table for an unusual news conference. One by one, as TV news cameras rolled, they catalogued their many lawsuits against President Barack Obama’s administration.
When it came to Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne’s turn, he said, “We have eight lawsuits.” One of those, defending Arizona’s new law requiring police officers to check the papers of anyone they suspect is in the US illegally, will be heard by the US Supreme Court today.
Like the Supreme Court challenge to the Obama-sponsored healthcare law heard last month, the Arizona case is part of a larger story about an escalating battle between Republican-led states and the federal government. All but one of the 16 states that have filed “friend of the court” briefs on the Arizona side have Republican governors.
Meanwhile, all of the 11 states lining up with the Obama administration are led by Democrats.
The ranks of Republican attorneys general have swelled dramatically in the last decade, resulting in a nearly even nationwide partisan split that is unprecedented in modern history. Republican attorneys general now number 24 of the 50 state attorneys general, compared with just 12 as recently as 2000.
While it is not uncommon for attorneys general to try to use the courts to advance the priorities of their own political party, lawyers on both sides say the newer crop of Republicans — particularly the core nine who organised the Mayflower news conference — are more tightly co-ordinated and often more vocal about their political goals than Republican attorneys general have been in the past.
In the late 1990s, prominent Democrats such as New York’s Eliot Spitzer and Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal set much of the agenda for top state prosecutors.
The steady rise in Republican attorneys general partly follows the increased Republican dominance in statehouses since the 1990s and, separately, the higher profile that attorneys general have drawn in recent decades through multi-state litigation such as against tobacco companies. The Republicans gained a majority of the governors’ offices in the 1994 elections, fell behind Democrats in the 2000s, then again took the majority in 2010 elections.
“There seems to be, in addition to the size, an intensified cohesion and collegiality among the (Republican) AGs,” said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, one of the nine, in an interview. “Part of it is based on personality. Part of it is based on sense of purpose.”
That sense of purpose — to fight what Abbott and the others say is overreaching by the Obama administration — has mitigated differences that might have been prompted by regionalism, ambition, age and length of service.
“We trust each other,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, another of the nine and a leader of the challenge to the Obama healthcare law. “We look out for each other. We are a team.”
Many of them participate in monthly phone calls coordinated by the Republican State Government Leadership Foundation, a group that raises money for conservative causes and helped arrange the March news conference. Chris Jankowski, the foundation’s executive director, said the calls are focused on strategy and policy yet can involve litigation decisions.
The officials also co-ordinate their efforts through the Republican Attorneys General Association, another fundraising group. That organisation, started in 1999 out of frustration with environmental and other priorities of the then Democratic state attorneys general, raises money to help elect more Republicans.