Attorney general wanted

must have great integrity

May 15, 2006|By DENNIS M. SWEENEY

With the announcement of Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.'s retirement, Maryland voters will be hiring a new lawyer for the first time since 1988, giving us an opportunity to reflect on what the post has become and what it should be.

The constitutional requirements are spare. To be elected, someone need only be a qualified voter who has resided and practiced law in Maryland for at least 10 years.

In deciding whom to select from the candidates, voters should consider who can best preserve the distinguished heritage of this office while infusing it with renewed spirit and energy.

One of the most important roles the attorney general plays under our constitution is counsel to all state agencies, all branches of state government and all state officials. Government being a political business, this would seem to be an impossible task, with competing political agendas and ambitions making fair and effective representation by one lawyer only a pipe dream.

While tensions have existed over the years, the system works remarkably well. In many cases, a formal written opinion of the attorney general will lay to rest the competing legal concerns of warring state officials. But it works only to the extent that the legal positions taken by the attorney general stand up as well-researched and objective and if the attorney general is perceived as an "honest broker" among competing interests, often finding the sensible middle ground that serves the public interest.

To have such credibility requires not only the personal integrity of the attorney general but also a professional cadre of the best and brightest lawyers.

Many years ago, positions in the attorney general's office required political sponsors and were held by lawyers for only two or three years before they returned to private practice. While employed, they were expected to contribute to and work on the attorney general's political activities.

Today, largely through the efforts of the past two attorneys general, the office has become a highly professional law firm of over 350 lawyers, attracting top graduates of the country's best law schools and those with a firm commitment to public law practice. Instead of staying only a few years, many attorneys now enjoy a career in public service. Many have been appointed to the trial and appellate judiciary by governors of both major parties.

While all assistant attorneys general serve at the pleasure of the attorney general, the emphasis on legal skills and training rather than political sponsorship or affiliation has meant that a cohort of experienced lawyers continues from one administration to another, providing the bedrock of sound and informed legal advice so essential to the smooth functioning of state government.

Whoever is our next attorney general, while making necessary changes in senior leadership positions, should pledge the same commitment to a fully professional staff that the public will have full confidence in.

Finally, there are areas in which the attorney general has been charged with a more activist role.

Maryland law makes the attorney general the chief advocate for Maryland consumers, for vigorous antitrust enforcement and for the regulation of the securities industry. Additionally, the attorney general can bring criminal charges relating to official corruption, the environment and Medicaid fraud. Marylanders should select someone who has the experience and enthusiasm to be our tireless advocate in these areas.

Many good lawyers could do all the above, but the intangible element is rock-solid integrity. Anyone elected to this office undoubtedly will be a skillful politician able to attract the allegiance of voters and likely will be someone who has ambitions beyond being attorney general. But the office often calls upon the attorney general to sublimate his immediate political instincts or personal feelings to what the public good and the obligations of the position call for. It is probably not accidental that with such difficult and potentially unpopular choices to be made, no attorney general since the 1930s has gone on to be elected to another office.

The present attorney general is a shining example of how that inherent conflict is best resolved.

It is widely known that Mr. Curran, while personally and openly opposed to the death penalty, consistently told his staff to do the best job of defending Maryland's law and the sentences imposed and gave it the support to do excellent legal work. He certainly knew that this position would not endear him to partisans on either side of this emotional issue, but he did what he thought was right and what the office demanded, confident that the Maryland legal system would produce justice.

For several generations, Maryland voters have had a good run of selecting excellent attorneys general. One hopes that those now seeking to be our lawyer will demonstrate in the months ahead that they have the right stuff to make them worthy successors.

Dennis M. Sweeney, a member of the attorney general's office from 1979 to 1991 and deputy attorney general from 1984 to 1991, is a judge in the Circuit Court for Howard County. His e-mail is dennis.sweeney@courts.state.md.us.

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