A few legislators got it into their heads to try an end run around Attorney General Mark Shurtleff the other day. They apparently don't think Shurtleff will provide a vigorous enough defense of the state's new immigration enforcement law, so they wanted to be named as defendants and hire their own attorney. Shurtleff told them to back off, and they did, fortunately.
However, just in case they didn't get the message, we would remind these lawmakers of three words: Mary Anne Wood.
She was the hired gun that legislators and then-Gov. Mike Leavitt decided to sign up to handle federal appeals of the state's restrictive abortion law, passed in 1991. Lawmakers and Leavitt didn't trust Attorney General Jan Graham to handle the state's appeal back then because she was a pro-choice Democrat. Leavitt and the abortion-crusade legislators were all Republicans. Much like Shurtleff today, Graham objected that the Legislature and governor were ignoring the Utah Constitution, which names the A.G. as the state's lawyer.
As events played out, Utah lost most of the major issues on its appeal anyway, though Wood did score some points on lesser issues.
Our point then as now is that the A.G.'s office already employs dozens of lawyers on the public's dime, and legislators should trust these professionals to represent the state's interests, as the constitution provides. Yes, there may be cases that justify the hiring of outside counsel with particular expertise, but that should be the A.G.'s call. He or she is, after all, the elected official who is directly answerable to the entire statewide electorate for handling Utah's legal business.
We suspect that legislators who want special counsel on the immigration enforcement law don't trust Shurtleff because he has supported the Utah Compact, a package of policies that includes not only tougher enforcement but a guest-worker law, among other measures. Enforcement-only zealots tend to view anything else as soft on illegal immigration. Shurtleff also accused the legislators, led by Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, of a political stunt, because their chosen lawyer, Sean Reyes, who would provide his services free of charge, is a candidate to succeed Shurtleff.
But Shurtleff's duty is to defend the state's new laws, regardless of his personal political convictions. Lawyers are professional advocates with a duty to their clients.
We would hope that legislators might learn that historical lesson from previous fights between lawmakers and attorneys general. But, apparently, that hope is misplaced.