Utah Attorney General John Swallow has avoided federal charges, but even if he survives the ongoing multiple investigations, one legislator is proposing a future fix to the office’s ethical problems by having the state attorney general be an appointed office. But in other states, have appointed AG’s avoided allegations of ethical misconduct?
Editor’s note: This is Part 10 of The Swallow Files, a series of online and print stories examining notes, observations and overlooked elements of the ongoing Swallow scandal. Also see parts 1,2, 3, 4,5, 6, 7, 8 and Part 9 ; that last week looked at whether or not the Legislature might impeach Swallow if investigators discovered a pattern of unethical behavior but no laws broken on the part of the AG.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, wants the attorney general to be a political appointment rather than an elected position so as to remove the candidate from the temptation of taking campaign cash from favor-seeking special interests.
“There are a lot of good attorneys that find the process of going through a campaign unsavory and would not throw their hat in the ring because of it,” Weiler says. But if they were appointed, Weiler says, “the quality of attorneys serving as AG would increase because we would be appointing someone on their merits and not on their ability to raise money.”
The danger in appointing, however, is that an attorney general could be leaned on by the governor, as opposed to special interests like businessmen facing legal troubles with the state. Five states currently appoint their attorneys general, including New Hampshire.
In March 2013, that state’s attorney general announced he would be stepping down; New Hampshire State GOP Chair Jennifer Horn in a statement claimed Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan was forcing Republican Attorney General Michael Delaney out through “vindictive political retribution” because Delaney criticized Hassan’s support of casino gambling in the state.
Weiler, however, says that kind of risk is unlikely in Utah, and that keeping the attorney general off the campaign trail is also going to attract lawyers more interested in the public good than the public spotlight.
John Weingart, a political-science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says that while his state is no stranger to political corruption, the appointed attorney general in his state has not really been the subject of any damning headlines.
“The important part of New Jersey’s system is that once the governor nominates the attorney general and the nomination is confirmed by the state senate, then the governor can’t fire them,” Weingart says. “Unlike other cabinet officers, the AG then serves until the end of the governor’s term.”
Weingart also says that this practice has made the attorney general’s office less politicized, and one usually filled by professional lawyers. “They are public figures, but much less so,” Weingart says. “They tend to be very successful lawyers, or highly regarded lawyers with a variety of backgrounds, who generally haven’t previously run for office.”
Since the state’s AGs tend to be lawyers instead of politicians, Weingart says they’ve historically not been beholden to special interests, including the governor who appointed them. “It has been a good thing [in New Jersey], and it’s enabled the attorney general to freely pursue investigations in order of priority he or she thinks is appropriate without either the reality or appearance of a political agenda in doing so,” Weingart says.