The Magazine

The Last Redoubt

Republican attorneys general: the unsung heroes in challenging the Obama agenda

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By FRED BARNES
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The inner core is distinguished by camaraderie and teamwork. They’re relative newcomers. Five of them—Wilson, Strange, Bondi, Olens, Pruitt—were elected in 2010, Cuccinelli in 2009. They have a leader and mentor, Abbott. They talk constantly. They strategize. Pointing to his cell phone, Wilson told me, “I have all their numbers in here.” They’re intensely committed to their cause. They enjoy thwarting Obama. Except for Bondi, they come from politics. She was a prosecutor.

Let’s look at the inner core, starting with Abbott. He’s easy to pick out in a crowd of AGs. He’s in a wheelchair, the victim of a freak accident at 26. While jogging, Abbott was struck by a falling oak tree and paralyzed. A year later, he passed the bar exam. He excelled as a Houston lawyer, was elected a judge, and won the AG job in 2002 in a landslide. After arguing a case before the Supreme Court, Abbott was singled out by Justice John Paul Stevens. “You don’t have to stand at the podium to make a good argument,” the justice said. Abbott had spoken from the counsel’s table. Despite the kind words, Stevens voted against Abbott’s side of the case. Abbott is revered by less experienced AGs. But he’ll soon switch to politics. With Gov. Rick Perry stepping down, Abbott, 55, is set to run for governor of Texas next year.

Abbott is blunt about his readiness for legal combat with Obama. “We’re looking to see if he exceeds his authority in ways that compromise the Constitution,” he says. As for EPA, “whenever they come up with a rule, they know there’s a lawsuit going to be filed against them.” He says the Obama administration “continues to overreach, overreach, overreach.”

His political views sound libertarian, though he doesn’t call himself one. In an interview with Texas Monthly, he said “the beast known as federal bureaucracy .  .  . is consuming this country and diminishing both the rights of states and individuals in a way that must be stopped.” There’s an inverse relationship between government and liberty, he told Evan Smith of Texas Tribune. “The more powerful the federal government, the less liberty individuals have,” he said. “It’s almost like a mathematical equation.”

Cuccinelli, 44, says he admires Abbott for his lack of “a club mentality,” which requires Republican AGs to maintain cordial relations with their Democratic counterparts. Cuccinelli isn’t clubby either. “I took the Abbott model and put it on steroids,” he says. In 2010, he campaigned in Iowa for AG Tom Miller’s Republican opponent and was chastised by several GOP colleagues for his breach of AG etiquette. Cuccinelli served two terms in the Virginia state senate before his election as AG. This year, he’s the GOP candidate for governor of Virginia. 

He rushed to be first to challenge Obamacare in court. His solo suit beat Florida’s by 11 minutes. At the time, the consensus in the political community and among legal scholars was that suits against Obamacare were frivolous. But in his riveting new book Unprecedented: The Constitutional Challenge to Obamacare, Josh Blackman has a different take.

“Cuccinelli’s suit played a pivotal role in advancing the challenge” when federal judge Henry Hudson ruled Obamacare exceeded the commerce power of Congress, Blackman writes. “That ruling .  .  . changed the entire discourse surrounding the case.” Challenges to Obamacare were no longer frivolous, and, Blackman writes, “Obamacare supporters started to worry.”

Scott Pruitt, 45, was a state senator and co-owner of the Oklahoma RedHawks Triple-A baseball team before his election as AG. He took the lead in suing the federal government over the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill on the ground that it jeopardizes state pension funds. Ten AGs have joined the suit. He and Abbott succeeded in voiding a dubious EPA rule that claimed air pollution from Texas and Oklahoma was harming Granite City, Illinois.

Pruitt never refers to the Affordable Care Act as Obamacare because he doesn’t want to “politicize” an issue that, for him, is about the rule of law and the federal government’s exceeding its authority. But he takes a sharply critical view of Obama. “He’s kept his promise that Washington knows best,” Pruitt says. “He’s kept his promise that if Congress doesn’t [act], he can’t wait. The only thing wrong with that is it’s not consistent with our Constitution and our rule of law. He can’t do that. Who else but a state attorney general is in a position to respond? Who else is there but a state AG to stand up and say no?” Pruitt likes his job. He is the chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association.

Unlike his AG peers, Luther Strange, 60, has had first-hand experience in Washington, where he spent eight years as a lobbyist for a natural gas company. He is six nine and won a scholarship to play basketball at Tulane University, where he also earned a law degree.

Running for AG in 2010, he invited Cuccinelli to campaign for him. Cuccinelli got an enthusiastic reception. After he won, Strange flew to Austin to consult Abbott on “how he set up his office.” When he heard about the Boeing case, Strange quickly contacted other AGs. “We need to weigh in on this,” he told them. “We’re right-to-work states. You don’t want the federal government telling private industry where they can locate, based on whether it’s union or non-union work.” On Obamacare, he says, “If it’s a good idea that can’t be implemented, it’s not a good idea.” Strange is the coordinating counsel for the states in the BP oil spill case.

“Don’t let the blond hair, button nose, and good looks deceive you. Pam Bondi is a dynamo, and you don’t want to be in her way with nefarious intents.” The sexist angle in the piece on Bondi in covering Longboat Key, Florida, is crude, but she is a dynamo. Cuccinelli calls Bondi, 47, an “energizer bunny.”

One of her first actions as Florida AG was to replace the lawyer chosen by her predecessor, Bill McCollum, to argue the Obamacare case in the Supreme Court. She hired Paul Clement, renowned as the best advocate before the court. Before Florida governor Rick Scott had decided on expanding Medicaid, she declared he should reject the federal money to increase the program. Scott decided to take the money, only to be overruled by the legislature. Bondi felt vindicated.

Her race for attorney general was her first bid for office, and she ran into trouble in the GOP primary. Twice divorced and now engaged, she came under attack for her lifestyle. Sarah Palin came to her rescue. They’d never met, but “she reached out to me,” Bondi says. Palin’s intervention was crucial. She did robocalls in the closing days of the campaign. Bondi won narrowly. On July 1, she filed for reelection in 2014.

Sam Olens chaired Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign in Georgia, volunteering his time outside his AG duties. (Romney beat Obama, 53-45 percent, in the state.) His Democratic foe in 2010, a former prosecutor, called Olens’s emphasis on national and constitutional issues “frivolous.” Olens, 56, won handily.

For 12 years, he was chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners in suburban Atlanta. For a politician, he is low-key and cerebral. Of AGs he says, “Clearly our most important role is combating federal overreach.” With waves of new regulations from the Obama administration, “I don’t see where our work is getting any lesser.” 

Alan Wilson, 40, is the son of Joe Wilson, the Republican congressman from South Carolina who interrupted an Obama speech to Congress in 2009 by yelling, “You lie.” As AG, Wilson succeeded Henry McMaster, an early proponent along with Bill McCollum of taking legal action against Obamacare. Both he and McCollum lost races for governor in 2010—evidence AG isn’t a reliable springboard to governor.

Wilson defeated the Obama administration on a voter ID case. In 2012, Justice Department lawyers refused to approve a law requiring ID to vote. Wilson appealed the decision, and a three-judge panel ruled the ID requirement did not discriminate against racial minorities—exactly the opposite of what Justice had claimed. “Being silent and doing nothing is never the right answer,” Wilson says. “What happens in one state can happen in another.”

He’s a firm believer in collective action by Republican AGs. “Who else can bring a lawsuit on behalf of a state?” he says. “That’s a powerful thing, especially when you have a dozen states. .  .  . I stand ready to help my fellow AGs if I can. I’ve never felt alone on national issues.” And the good thing about collaborating with Republican AGs, he says, is “there are no ball hogs.”

Beyond the lawsuits they’ve brought, these AGs have a special significance. They’re the future. The legal culture has changed, and smart, young, conservative lawyers can now see a career path that involves years, perhaps decades, as a state attorney general or an assistant AG. Abbott’s staff, for example, is loaded with high-octane young lawyers. From 2003 to 2008, Abbott’s solicitor general was Ted Cruz, the Texas senator elected last year. 


Randy Barnett, a Georgetown University law professor, says a law school student in the 1970s would rarely encounter conservative legal philosophy or ideas. The student would have to find them on his own. Barnett, an architect of legal strategy against Obama, was one of the students who did.

Now there are organizations that bring conservative lawyers together. The Federalist Society, founded in 1982, has more than 53,000 members and chapters at over 200 law schools. Conservative public interest law firms and foundations were created. The Institute for Justice began its lively defense of civil liberties in 1991. Three years later the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty opened its doors. In 1999, the Republican Attorneys General Association was started by Alabama AG Bill Pryor and a few others. Pryor is now a judge on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

And by the mid-1990s, a conservative legal movement was rising. “Most of the Republican AGs,” Barnett says, have come out of the new legal culture. “I don’t think you are going to see any decline in the importance of state AGs in our constitutional system,” Leonard Leo says.

More Abbotts are in the legal pipeline. And if all goes well, voters will soon know their names.

Fred Barnes is an executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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