Apparently dissatisfied with Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s subpar performance in court, the Legislature’s Executive Board wants to hire its own lawyer to defend the state’s laws. 2020 House Bill 1004 would empower the Legislature to hire independent counsel to “defend any law, or intervene in the defense of any law, in any civil action or proceeding in which the state is an interested party.” HB 1004 would allow the Legislature to hire its own attorney by a majority vote of the Executive Board or by concurrent resolution passed by both houses.
In an interesting twist, Section 3 of HB 1004 authorizes the House and Senate to assert independent legal positions. I have to wonder if that’s even constitutional: after all, laws express the will not of one chamber or the other but of the Legislature as a whole. If a liberal Senate and a conservative House were to pass a compromise bill but then find themselves in opposition on one component of that bill that gets taken to court, could the two chambers really go to court and argue opposing interpretations of the law before the court? It seems to me that’s why we have one attorney general to represent the state in court: the state is one entity, with one will.
Section 4 authorizes the Speaker of the House and the Senate President Pro Tempore to hire lawyers other than the A.G. to defend their chambers, members, and agents thereof who get sued for their official actions (and Speaker Steven Haugaard knows a thing or two about that!).
And naturally, we taxpayers would be on the hook for this redundant lawyering. Section 5 of HB 1004 raids the million-dollar Legislative Priority Pilot Program Contingency Fund, a small slush fund created by 2015 SB 99.
Teachers and state employees aren’t getting raises, but Legislative leaders want to raid the state piggy bank to hire lawyers to do the Attorney General’s work for him. But I guess if I were stuck with Jason Ravnsborg as my attorney, I’d want to hire backup, too.