Unlike United States AGs, Montana’s Tim Fox, et al, Can Chart Their Own Course
BY PAT HILL
March 1, 2015
In the United States, Attorneys General are the top law dogs of their jurisdictions, whether at the federal or state level. A difference in political processes, however, enables an attorney general at the state level to act much more independently than his counterpart in Washington, D.C.
That independence is attained in 43 states (including Montana), where Attorneys General are chosen by popular vote, as opposed to the U.S. Attorney General, who is a presidential appointee who must then be confirmed by the Senate. It is an attorney general’s responsi-bility to ensure that the laws of the country are enforced, yet, at the federal level, an attorney general’s loyalty may be torn between the laws he or she swears to uphold and the president that they serve. Even the appearance of impropriety can cause problems.
Making the U.S. Attorney General an elected position is not a new idea. Proponents argue that, besides making it a more democratic process, having an elected U.S. Attorney General would in fact create another check on possible overreach of presidential power. An elected U.S. Attorney General would have voters rather than the president to answer to, thus ensuring that an attorney general hailing from the same party as the president whose administration he is serving would not be given to granting that president too much latitude. In the same vein, an elected attorney general from the opposite party as the president would be less inclined to bring questionable litigation against the executive. Proponents also claim that the states have already demonstrated such direct election of the attorney general works.
In the Treasure State, the Attorney General was originally authorized under the Organic Act of 1864 that established Montana as a territory. When Montana became a state in 1889, the state Constitution mandated that the Attorney General would be elected by popular vote. Montana’s attorney general is one of five members of the State Land Board, which oversees revenue generated from state lands totaling 5.2 million acres. Also charged with enforcing the law, the Treasure State’s attorney general supervises the state’s 56 county attorneys.
Republican Tim Fox currently serves as Montana’s attorney general. He was elected in November of 2012. His predecessor, Democrat Steve Bullock, was elected governor of Montana that same election cycle. Bullock served as attorney general after defeating Fox for the slot in the 2008 election. It’s not that unusual for a State Attorney General to go on and serve as that state’s governor: in fact, political pundit Larry Sabato joked in a 2010 story published in his popular weekly online newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball that “There’s an old joke about the National Association of Attorneys General—their registered name is supposedly the National Association of Aspiring Governors.”
Bullock isn’t the Treasure State’s only attorney general in relatively recent history who went on to be elected governor. Republican Marc Racicot served as Montana’s attorney general from 1989 until his election as governor in 1993. Racicot was governor of the state until 2001. He was rumored to have been offered the job of U.S. Attorney General by former president G.W. Bush that same year, but Racicot reportedly declined Bush’s offer. Other Montana Attorneys General who went on to become governor include Democrat Forrest Anderson, who served as attorney general from 1957 until 1969, when he moved into the governor’s mansion after winning the election in 1968. Anderson served as governor until 1973. John Bonner served as the state’s attorney general in 1941 and 1942, and was governor from 1949-1953. Sam C. Ford was Montana’s attor-ney general from 1917-1921, and served as governor from 1941-1949, when he was defeated by Bonner.
Fox hasn’t yet revealed any gubernatorial aspirations. In fact, Fox has already filed to run for reelec-tion as Attorney General in 2016. But Fox has revealed a penchant for independence as an attorney general, in part through news releases, that often runs counter to the ideals of the Democrat Party his governor belongs to (in fact, Bullock is also the chair of the national Democrat Governors’ Association). These include Fox’s stance regarding guns and the Second Amendment, immigration, and federal regulatory powers over the state: he strongly supports the Second Amendment, favors state rather than federal regulatory authority, and strongly opposes President Obama’s executive action regarding immigration.
Fox joined with several other state attorneys general in signing a lawsuit against the President’s immigration move, as did several governors, but Governor Bullock’s signature did not appear on that lawsuit.
But Fox isn’t always in opposition to the Democrat Party. When the Montana Legislature convened in January, their agenda included several measures brought forward by Fox, which he says are bipartisan issues focusing on protecting children, enhancing public safety, and strengthening consumer protection laws.
“These are common sense measures that address genuine needs and concerns of Montanans throughout the state,” Fox said in a Department of Justice news release. “Protecting children and public safety aren’t partisan issues…they are Montana issues. I look forward to working with our bill sponsors and others to move these measures forward to the governor’s desk.”