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The Practice Corner: Attorneys General (in general) – A Job Description

by Daniel DeWoskin
Trial Attorney

Today, like many DeKalb Bar Association members, I observed a debate between Ken Hodges and Sam Olens, both of whom aspire to be the next Georgia Attorney General. Amidst the bickering over each candidate’s resume and job performance were the undertones of an intellectual disagreement as to whether or not the position of attorney general is better categorized as that of a prosecutor or a politician. Of all the important topics briefly touched upon by the two candidates during the brief and insightful debate, I found this schism regarding the most basic job description particularly compelling.

For the most part, both candidates were deferential to those individuals who held the seat they now seek in previous years. Where there was criticism of a predecessor, it was based upon a difference of political ideology, or so it would appear to me as the observer. The election for attorney general is, in fact, a partisan election, so it should not be surprising that these criticisms exist and perhaps largely along party lines. However, in analyzing the merit of Mr. Hodges’ contention that his experience as a district attorney better qualifies him for the position than Mr. Olens’ experience as a county commissioner, one cannot help but acknowledge that an attorney general must follow the law without regard to personal political philosophy. He cannot and should not enforce only those laws he feels are worthwhile. Mr. Olens’ point is also well taken that unconstitutional laws should be challenged.

Yet, as an observer and undecided voter, this question in and of itself did not clear things up for me today. Mr. Olens discussed challenging unconstitutional laws such as the new federal healthcare law. I certainly did not get the impression that he was referring to laws such as the Arizona law mandating that state officers take affirmative steps toward enforcing immigration laws. Thus, if my personal political philosophy has me more concerned that Arizona officers are legally obligated to make law enforcement judgments based upon racial profiling than I am about the new federal healthcare laws, I suppose I can determine which candidate deserves my vote. It’s just not that easy.

I will admit that I am bothered by the current political climate that seems to push voters to one extreme or the other, but I want to vote for the candidate who is a) best qualified for the job and b) whom I most identify with as someone who shares my values. Often, I find that these two criteria can be in direct conflict. The fact that a candidate’s prior experience may better relate to the job he seeks than his opponent is important, but it cannot justify my vote even if the candidate’s values or understanding of the role of government contradicts my own. There are Supreme Court justices whose decisions I do not often agree with, and yet I rarely if ever find myself questioning their qualifications for the job. Thankfully, I do not need to add an asterisk or footnote regarding Harriet Miers. My point is that just because a candidate fails to share my views, my correct and logical views, that does not mean the candidate is unqualified.

As for Mr. Hodges and Mr. Olens, I did not find either of them to be particularly extreme in their politics during this particular debate. I think they may have more in common in their views and goals than even they would like to admit. Both support the death penalty. Both candidates appreciate the importance of exposing and eradicating government corruption and violations of public integrity. Both candidates have similar opinions regarding the most serious challenges for the next attorney general and the priorities that should be set. Not surprisingly, the area that the two men most disagree on is which man has a background that better qualifies him for the position.

Regardless of their views, this is not a situation where the candidates are interchangeable. Each of these men will conduct himself differently as attorney general than his opponent should he win the election. I was bothered by some of the petty squabbling that took place during the debate, but satisfied to find that both these men had integrity, pride in their respective elected positions, and a genuine interest in serving their community. I am not oblivious to the various television ads, editorials, and other articles regarding these men. This election, like most others throughout this state and the rest of the country, or so it seems, abounds in criticism, accusations of scandal, and allegations of corruption. On the whole, such negativity obscures a voter’s ability to determine who will best represent the community’s interests.

The attorney general is the state’s lawyer. In many respects, the position is one that is prosecutorial in nature. However, given the limited resources the office has and the limitless demands for its attention, politics dictate the direction of those resources to a monumental extent. Both men are eager to be elected and there should be little question that both are capable of serving Georgia honorably should they win the seat. For myself, as distasteful as I may find it to make any election decisions simply based upon party ideology, I cannot argue with how easy it can render more difficult decisions at the polls.


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