Credit Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, for working out a thorny issue in a civilized fashion without wreaking havoc on the state constitution.
In response to Miller’s class-action lawsuits against the Trump administration, the Republican-controlled Legislature sought to restrain him by requiring permission to file such actions from the governor, Legislature or state executive council — Reynolds, Secretary of State Paul Pate and Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig, all Republicans, and Secretary of the Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald and Auditor Rob Sand, both Democrats.
Miller promised Reynolds if she’d veto the measure he would seek her permission before pursing an out-of-state lawsuit or authoring an amicus brief, a letter of support.
The compromise was the right thing to do without upending a state constitution that puts the attorney general in the judicial branch, not subservient to the politics of the executive or legislative branches.
Iowa would have been the only state with that restriction.
Miller is a 10-term Democrat with 37 years on the job. He didn’t have a Republican challenger in 2018.
During the past two years, he has joined a half-dozen lawsuits initiated in other states against the Trump administration, angering Republican legislators.
In particular, GOP leaders were upset with Miller for diving into such politically fraught issues as halting family separations at the U.S.-Mexican border and stopping a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census, which Democrats believe will scare immigrants away, leading to an inaccurate count of people living in the country.
But Miller also opposed the Obama administration’s Waters of the United States rule, which gave the federal government authority to regulate wetlands and tributaries polluting large rivers. That didn’t endear him to Democrats or environmentalists.
While lobbying against the Republican’s legislation to defang him, Miller enlisted a bipartisan group of state attorneys general who stressed the need for states to provide a check on possible federal overreach.
“As a nation of checks and balances, it is essential that we retain as many of our inherent checks and balances as possible to ensure the our offices function as that envisioned by our states’ founding fathers, instead of according to political cycles,” wrote Idaho’s Republican Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.
For the most part, Miller has been applauded for pursuing multistate class-action lawsuits against major corporations.
Wells Fargo recently agreed to pay Iowa $6.18 million as part of its $575 million settlement concerning overly zealous sales practices. The money will go into the state’s Consumer Education and Litigation Fund.
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Uber, after failing to reveal a nationwide hack of its customers, agreed to a $600,000 settlement with Iowa, although the drivers affected won’t get anything.
Miller also has joined a multistate action against opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma, which earlier this year agreed to pay Oklahoma $270 million.
Most famously, Miller was among the attorneys general who took on Big Tobacco, winning $1.25 billion to date for the state, including $49.5 million this year. (Only $10.9 million of that latter total will end up in state coffers. Bondholders again get the lion’s share after Iowa and eight other states agreed to an initial payout amount, losing a bet smoking revenues would decline more than they have.)
Those lawsuits, though, didn’t have the policy ramifications that can drive a wedge between political parties, including Republican attorneys general going on the offensive against Democratic initiatives.
Twenty Republican attorneys general — with the Trump administration’s support — won a lawsuit in federal district court in Texas that declared the Democrats’ Affordable Care Act unconstitutional because of its individual mandate to tax nonparticipants. The U.S. Supreme Court will take up that decision.
Wisconsin was one of the plaintiffs. Then the political winds shifted.
In November, Democrat Tony Evers, the state superintendent of schools, defeated Republican Gov. Scott Walker, and Democrat Josh Kaul became attorney general. During a lame-duck special session before they could take office, the Republican-controlled Legislature tried to limit the Democrats’ powers by prohibiting the attorney general from joining or withdrawing from out-of-state lawsuits.
That didn’t pass muster with a state circuit judge who issued a temporary injunction citing “irreparable harm to a constitutional democracy such as ours.”
Once that decision was reached, Evers and Kaul pulled Wisconsin out of the ACA lawsuit. The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court next will weigh in on their ability to do that.
In Iowa, whoever occupies the attorney general’s office, no matter the party, should be free to pursue an out-of-state lawsuit on behalf of their constituents.
Rather than resorting to legislation — or, most likely is necessary, amending the state constitution to preclude political problems — the recourse is to vote that individual out of office.
Miller’s promise to head off a confrontation is not binding on his successors. It’s a temporary fix, which Reynolds wisely realizes.