Alaska editorial: Attorney general's resignation shows the constitution works

Posted: Tuesday, February 22, 2005

This editorial appeared in Thursday's Anchorage Daily News:

In the wake of the Renkes affair, state Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, has introduced a constitutional amendment to elect Alaska's attorney general. He thinks the change is worth talking about, though he's still personally undecided.

Let the discussion begin. It will remind Alaskans why the state constitution's framers overwhelmingly decided on an attorney general appointed by the governor. It will show why their decision is still a good one today.

The Renkes case is certainly no reason to make the change. In his case, the system of accountability envisioned by the framers worked as intended.

Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed Gregg Renkes, a longtime and trusted aide, to be attorney general. Gov. Murkowski asked Mr. Renkes to handle the coal negotiations that got Mr. Renkes into trouble. The trouble was that Mr. Renkes had more than $100,000 of stock in a company that would benefit from the state's efforts to promote the coal deal. Mr. Renkes didn't disclose that to his boss or seek guidance about the potential conflict, as required by state ethics law.

While the failings were Mr. Renkes', responsibility for the situation ultimately fell to the man who appointed him, Gov. Murkowski. As the controversy roiled on, Mr. Renkes feared his situation had become a liability to the governor, so he did the right thing and resigned.

It might have been different if Mr. Renkes had been an elected attorney general. Elected politicians, faced with ethics controversies, often take refuge in the ballot box. Instead of resigning, they can say, "Let my constituents decide for themselves the next time I run."

The best argument for an elected attorney general is that an appointed one may skew legal advice and official actions to please his boss, the governor. But an elected attorney general could skew legal advice and official actions to suit his own political agenda and aspirations. Pick your poison.

The worst thing about an elected attorney general is that it creates a competing power center inside the executive branch. In other states, it is a training ground for ambitious politicians, who may look to make their own name by thwarting the governor.

When multiple officials share authority and responsibility, it's hard to hold any of them accountable. The founders wanted Alaska's governor to have clear authority so he or she could be accountable to Alaskans. During the constitutional convention, they soundly rejected a proposal to elect the attorney general. The margin was more than 3 to 1.

At the convention, delegate Ralph Rivers worried about a governor "passing the buck as to who was to blame because things didn't go well."

"Let us not give him any outs," Rivers said. "Let's not take him off the hook by giving him an (elected) attorney general that he can put the blame on."

Sticking with an appointed attorney general was the right call when the state constitution was first written. It's still the right call today.

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