In a blow to Attorney General Rob McKenna’s broad claim of discretionary authority, the Washington State Supreme Court today granted review to City of Seattle v. Robert M. McKenna, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes petition to compel McKenna to withdraw from the federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of key health care reform provisions.
In granting review, Supreme Court Commissioner Steven Goff not only rejects McKenna’s multiple proposed grounds for dismissing the petition (that there’s no original jurisdiction, that there’s no justiciable controversy, that Holmes lacks standing and that there’s no claim upon which relief can be granted), he also affirms a major premise behind Holmes argument that the Attorney General lacks authority to participate as plaintiff in a lawsuit independent of state officer client:
The Washington Constitution provides that the attorney general “shall be the legal adviser of the state officers, and shall perform such other duties as may be prescribed by law.” CONST. art. 3, § 21. When language of this sort is used in a constitution to describe the powers or authority of a state official, the official does not have the common law powers that might be associated with such an office, but only the powers expressly given by the legislature. … Thus, this court has stated that “[t]he powers of the Attorney General are created and limited not by the common law but by the law enacted by the people, either in their constitutional declarations or through legislative declarations in pursuance of constitutional provisions.”
Sound familiar? Of course, that’s exactly what I’ve been arguing (for example, here and here) in my comprehensive analysis of the legal issues surrounding Goldmark v. McKenna, Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark’s petition to compel McKenna to provide statutorily mandated legal representation.
McKenna has repeatedly cited a broader duty to defend both the public interest and the interests of the state as a whole, as the basis for claiming discretionary authority to refuse an otherwise lawful request for legal representation from a state officer client, but such discretion would appear to contradict the plain language of the statutes. Thus if the Court affirms the relatively narrow interpretation of the Attorney General’s powers, as stated above by Commissioner Goff, it is hard to see how McKenna can prevail against Goldmark.
A hearing on Seattle v. McKenna is not scheduled until Nov. 18, with briefs due beginning in August, but with Goldmark v. McKenna likely to be expedited to accommodate the tighter schedule of the appeal that sparked it, some of the main issues in the former case may be settled by the latter, far in advance of oral arguments. And while it would be a mistake to draw too many parallels between the cases, there is no question that the two overlap, in that they both challenge McKenna’s shaky claim to broad extra-statutory powers.