The Next Attorney General

Marc Abrams

With John Kroger’s announcement that he will not seek a second term as Attorney General, the voters of Oregon will be making a choice next year on their third different AG is as many terms. The job of Attorney General requires all manner of skills ― legal, managerial, and interpersonal ― that will not likely show up in any one candidate in perfect proportions. However, as candidates present themselves, here are some of the things we ought to be looking for:

Managerial experience.

First and foremost, the Attorney General is the CEO of a large organization. With approximately 300 lawyers, DOJ is the largest law shop in the state (Stoel Rives is larger overall, as is Perkins Coie, but neither has that number in Oregon). In addition, DOJ runs the Division of Child Support, which is larger than the combined law divisions, and which oversees whatever enforcement is needed for the 450,000 parents subject to support orders in Oregon. The budget hovers around three hundred million dollars, and there are over 1000 employees.

Oregon’s best interests are served by having an attorney general who brings experience in running complex organizations ― whether public or private ― to the position.

Broad civil law experience.

Many people refer to the AG as Oregon’s “Top Cop.” This is a misleading and even possibly harmful catch phrase. Only a small percentage of what is done at DOJ is criminal law, most of which is the province of the 36 district attorneys around the state. Of the five law divisions, only the smallest ― Criminal Justice ―engages full-time in direct law enforcement activities. CJ has only about a dozen lawyers. In addition, much of the work of our forty lawyers in the Appellate Division is the defense of convictions on appeal, some criminal work is done in our “plaintiff’s arm,” the Civil Enforcement Division, and other attacks on criminal convictions are done in the Trial Division. That having been said, most of our lawyers are engaged in representing the needs of the State just as a private firm would represent the needs of a large company. There are contracts to be drawn up, personnel matters to be dealt with, lawsuits to defend, appeals to be taken. And while some of that work will be for the Department of Corrections, the State Police, or DPSST, that is also not criminal law work.

There is nothing inherently wrong in a criminal law background. But it is not the best background for overseeing DOJ.

Political Acumen.

The most obvious difference between DOJ and a large private law firm is that DOJ, of course, is that DOJ is public. A law firm’s governance is entirely within itself, responsive to its own needs and those of clients it gets to select. DOJ responds not only to its primary client, the state government, but also to Oregon’s citizens, which it also directs indirectly and sometimes directly, and to a legislature that funds the Department. Political skills can be picked up in a lot of different contexts, but someone who has worked around the Oregon Legislature at some point, whether as a member or as staff, has a significant advantage over someone who has to learn that terrain on the fly.

In addition, DOJ is a unionized environment. SEIU represents the non-attorney workforce, and we lawyers are associated with AFSCME as Local 1085, the Oregon Association of Justice Attorneys. The next Attorney General will need to oversee two rounds of collective bargaining with both AFSCME and SEIU in his or her first term. Recruitment, retention and morale are serious issues in the Department that will need to be addressed by the next AG, hopefully in a collaborative manner.

“DOJ DNA”

Or the willingness to acquire it… For those of us within the Department, a commitment to the goal of public service, and an understanding that we who work at DOJ chose this career, is very important. David Frohnmayer and Hardy Myers in particular are remembered for their pride in running the agency and for their ability to instill that pride and a sense of mission in the Department’s attorneys and staff. In a world in which public employees can barely turn on the radio without their work, their work ethic, and their value to society being questioned by talk show hosts who likely never have even set foot in the Department, a commitment to the work and the people of DOJ would be welcome and important.

As candidates put themselves forward, these are some of the benchmarks they might be measured against. I’d be interested in hearing others.

(NOTE: I am president of AFSCME 1085, the Oregon Association of Justice Attorneys, but speak only for myself in this post.)

Comments

  • (Show?)

    Thank you, Marc. This is a really good post - almost a job description type document. And something worth understanding as we consider candidates for the job.

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      Is there any reason to suppose that SEIU won't spend a half million to defeat him in the Democratic Primary as they did last time as payback for is work on PERS reforms that kept the state from insolvency back in 2003? MacPherson ran a weak campaign the last time, but it's pretty tough to win an election when a group spends that kind of money in a primary election.

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    Wow! Really excellent article, Marc - it sheds light on an office that many Oregonians don't understand too well. Thanks so much for taking the time to put it together!

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    Great post. VERY informative.

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    Very well said, Mark. I hope you are submitting something similar to the Oregonian and other newspapers around the state.

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    Jack, I think he wrote this with you in mind.

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    This would be a stellar role for Steve Novick, way more valuable than Portland commissioner.

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    Just thinking it might be time to have a competent, qualified woman in the AG's office...

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      I'm pondering a post in which I would suggest names. Any suggestions along these lines?

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        John Hummel strikes me as well suited to be AG. He's a former Bend City Councilor who had a law firm in the city. Now he's director of Oregon Consensus at Portland State University. He has the chops, and a serious candidate with strong ties to the other side of the mountains would be a welcome change.

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        Today Steve Duin mentioned Dwight Holton, the former U.S. Attorney for Oregon. He would be a great candidate and comes with a strong Democratic pedigree. His brother in-law is Tim Kaine, former head of the DNC and now U.S. Senate candidate for Virginia. Dwight would be able to raise the money and rally the county DA's to keep this position in the Democratic column. I have heard that he is getting his affairs in order so he can run.

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      We would have just that person in Donna Maddux. She hits all the points Marc Abrams brings up, she has experience as an elected official, and she is whip smart.

      You would all be impressed with the depth of support she is getting to encourage her to run for AG. I, for one, hope she does it.

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    Echoing the comments about what a great post this is... Seems like combining the first and the last skills might be a good thing to look for -- someone with managerial experience within the DOJ. I also might add to the third point that, in addition to working well with the legislature and unions, good relationships with other state agencies would be something to consider.

    And hey, while we're making wish lists... Oregon's never had a female attorney general. So, there's that.

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      Obvious question, Josh: Why aren't you running?

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        There are a lot of reasons. I really enjoy being DA - and was re-elected to a 5th term in 2010. I have a supportive and progressive county commission and I'm able to speak unambiguously about policy issues and I don't think I would be so empowered as AG. I just got back from the NEW YORKER FESTIVAL debating Barry Scheck on capital punishment. I'm not sure I could continue doing things like that as AG. The AG is paid $77,000 a year, which is shameful and needs to be changed, whoever becomes AG. I am hoping there will be some good candidates.

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      Excellent points all Paulie, but I would argue that we very probably have not lost "Kroger to public service". He's still gonna run for something either here or elsewhere. Too young and driven to do otherwise.

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      I wouldn't call Marc's post here "offensive", I'd call it one particular vision for the job.

      It's also not fair to say that Kroger's tenure was all sweetness and light. Setting aside the "Oregonian's jihad" and all that nonsense, it's still true that there were a number of bona fide instances of dumb things happening.

      Would he have been handily re-elected? Yup. Would I have voted for him? Absolutely.

      But we can also be realistic in our judgments.

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    I agree with Josh Marquis that the Attorney General plays a critical role in supporting the DA offices throughout the state. At the same time, having spent 8 years as the head of BOLI, I know how critical the DOJ was as our lawyer in noncriminal matters.

    I think Marc's post did an excellent job of outlining the role of the Attorney General as I saw it. I will admit that, from Josh's perspective, it was probably light on the criminal law component.

    The one thing on which I believe Marc, Josh and I are all in agreement is that none of us is running for AG.

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    I would like a candidate who is not opposed to enforcing legislation passed by Oregon's voters, as the present and past AG have been.

open discussion

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