Sunday, November 05, 2006

Reality check: AG has big policy, legislative role

The Journal Sentinel endorses J.B. Van Hollen for attorney general.

Synopsis: We disagree with him on just about every issue you can think of -- concealed weapons, the death penalty, voter ID. He's just plain wrong on everything.

But the AG isn't a legislator, and Van Hollen says he'll just be the top cop, so we endorse him -- although we think Kathleen Falk would do a fine job, too.

Van Hollen's a prosecutor, too.

And we needed to balance our endorsement of Doyle for governor.

What's wrong with that is the basic premise.

The attorney general, when he/she chooses to use it, has a bully pulpit and can have enormous influence on what direction the state takes in its criminal justice system. The AG is an important force in shaping state policy, and legislators look to the AG for guidance on law enforcement issues.

The Dept. of Justice, which the AG heads, has its own legislative agenda and program for the legislative session and actively works for and against bills, from concealed weapons to consumer protection.

Congressman Mark Green certainly thinks the AG has influence on legislation. He's running a negative commercial in the closing days of the campaign attacking Doyle for opposing a sexual predator bill 12 years ago -- a bill that was improved and passed, with Doyle's support, because of his opposition to the weak initial draft.

Doyle even worked with then-Gov. Tommy Thompson on a whole set of juvenile justice reforms, back in the days when you needed votes from both parties to pass something.

There may be other reasons for the JS to endorse Van Hollen. But if the newspaper really believes that who holds the AG's office will not affect state laws and policy, the editorial board needs a crash course in how government works in Madison.

The AG, in truth, is more administrator and lawmaker than prosecutor. Except for a rare show trial -- like the Chai Vang case-- the attorney general doesn't prosecute anyone and hasn't in modern Wisconsin history. Doyle, who had an admirable record in 12 years as AG, won some arguments in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. But, although he was a former Dane County DA and an experienced prosecutor, he never prosecuted a case as AG.

UPDATE: When Peg Lautenschlager personally handled the Vang case, here's what Van Hollen told WisPolitics in September 2005:
"I believe an attorney general has much more important things to do thanjust spending time in a courtroom," said GOP AG hopeful J.B. Van Hollen,who views Lautenschlager's decision to jump on the case as politically motivated.
UPDATE: The Wisconsin State Journal endorses Falk, so both Falk and Doyle have both Madison papers' endorsements. It is rare the WSJ and Cap Times agree on anything, let alone the top two state races.


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