The following editorial was published in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald on April 26:
If Iowans take issue with the performance of the state attorney general, there is a ready-made solution to address the problem: They can vote him out.
That’s the appropriate response when citizens are displeased with actions taken by an elected official. Changing the powers and duties of the office for political reasons would not be an appropriate response. Yet that is exactly what the Iowa Legislature is attempting to do.
On Tuesday, the Iowa House voted, 54-45, to strip Attorney General Tom Miller of his powers. Tucked into a budget bill was a provision that would effectively require Miller, a Democrat, to ask permission before joining out-of-state lawsuits.
Though a majority of Republicans supported the measure, Rep. Gary Worthan, of Storm Lake, was the only one to speak in favor of the change, noting: “We have an attorney general who may have overstepped somewhat on some actions.”
Fairly tepid criticism from a single lawmaker for such a sweeping change.
Joining in lawsuits when the citizens of the state have a stake in the outcome is some of the meat and potatoes of the attorney general’s office. Iowa has joined consumer protection lawsuits — such as suing Big Tobacco — that have brought billions of dollars into the state.
The lawsuits that prompted this legislation though, are the suits against the Trump administration. That’s where the “somewhat” of an overstep “may have” occurred.
Why did Iowa’s attorney general feel the need to bring the state into those lawsuits? Because it was in the best interest of Iowans. One suit was challenging the repeal of net neutrality, which could have a devastating impact on internet access in rural areas — which is bad for Iowa.
Another was a lawsuit brought against the Department of Education for reversing a program to erase federal student loan debt for students defrauded by for-profit colleges — which was bad for young Iowans.
One more lawsuit was joining multiple other states in upholding the part of the Affordable Care Act that protects people with pre-existing conditions — also pretty important to Iowans.
Yet House Republicans suggest the Legislature would be better equipped to make decisions on when to join in a multi-state lawsuit.
Here’s the thing about a citizen legislature: They are, for the most part, not lawyers. The State of Iowa has long been proud to have a mixture of farmers and teachers and doctors and business owners — people from all walks of life — serving in the Legislature. Therefore, citizen legislatures rely on the expertise of the state attorney general’s office when it comes to matters of law. Legislators have their role to fill, but they should not expect to weigh in on matters of law when they are not qualified to make those decisions.
Miller, on the other hand, could not be more qualified. A Dubuque native, Miller was first elected Iowa’s attorney general when Jimmy Carter was president, and he’s been reelected 10 times. He’s the longest serving attorney general in the country. Just last November, Republicans didn’t even bother to put up a candidate to run against him.
Instead, Republican lawmakers have opted to eviscerate the office of the attorney general to render Miller ineffective. Were it to pass, Miller would become the only AG in the country faced with such limited power.
We understand how politics works, and that sometimes lawmakers might “somewhat overstep in some cases,” to borrow a phrase. But this slashing of the attorney general’s authority is a complete power grab and must be halted. One doesn’t have to be a lawyer to see this proposed law would be ill-conceived.