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Owens: Don't appoint AG

Published June 8, 2013 1:01 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

State Sen. Todd Weiler said in a June 2 op-ed for The Tribune that he wants to allow the governor to appoint our state's attorney general. I like and respect Weiler, but he is trying to solve the wrong problem. In his "Utah attorney general should be appointed," he does not mention John Swallow, but obviously the attorney general's present predicament is what has started the conversation.

Our problem is that our AG sought and obtained hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars from shady sources. Our problem is not that the governor needs more power, or that Utahns need less direct, independent legal judgment.

The answer is to eliminate the toxic storm of unlimited campaign contributions. The answer is not to give up Utahns' right to directly choose the state's attorney at the polls.

A lawyer knows who his or her client is, and seeks to offer sound, independent advice to protect the client's interests. When elected by Utahns, they become the AG's client. The AG's allegiance is to the people who hire and fire him or her.

The problem today is that when an attorney general seeks and receives huge sums of campaign money, the perception is that those contributors become the AG's clients. The AG appears to be looking out for them instead of for us.

If appointed by the governor, the attorney general will represent the governor and the governor's interests. Often, Utahns' interests and the governor's interests will coincide, but sometimes they may not. The attorney general needs to be able to give Utahns direct, independent legal advice, even if it does not fit the governor's political agenda. For example, an AG might warn that a pending bill is likely to be unconstitutional, even if that bill is supported by the governor.

The AG should represent the public's interest and be objectively and directly accountable to the people. This will not happen if the governor picks the attorney general.

Appointing the attorney general will not ensure that we will get the best attorney for the office. It only ensures that we get the governor's favorite choice. The same underlying problem — unlimited campaign money — will remain.

We must address the real problem that gave birth to the AG's scandals and not try solve a non-problem by weakening the public's power over its government.

Steve Owens is an attorney in private practice. He formerly served as president of the Utah State Bar.






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