Others’ opinion: State AG’s office needs reinforcements

Published 7:55 am Thursday, March 28, 2019

Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

There are lots of hands out looking for resources this legislative session. Not all those needs and wants will be fulfilled.

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But one request that should get serious attention is that of the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office. In its heyday, the AG’s office was stocked with some of the brightest talent and best resources in the state. It had a robust criminal division ready to assist county attorneys with their most difficult cases while also pursuing consumer cases with vigor and leading on national cases such as the landmark lawsuit against Big Tobacco, the settlement of which secured funding for anti-smoking efforts in this state for a generation.

So quietly it was hardly noticed, the office has shrunk considerably. From a peak of 260 attorneys in 1999, it is down to 130. Its once-vaunted criminal division now has only one lawyer who can help counties with complex murder cases. Others in the division are buried in appellate cases and work connected to the state sex offender program. Funding for the office, with just a few ups and downs, is back down to 2002 levels and has not increased in six years.

Lawyers don’t go into public service to make money. Most could do far better in private practice. But the attorney general’s lawyers have seen their salaries erode for years even as workloads increased and technology in the office lagged badly. They’re paid substantially less than counterparts in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, less than attorneys for Hennepin County and thousands less than those in Ramsey County. That can severely undercut recruitment and retention of the top legal talent needed to go after wrongdoers in complex cases.

Robert Small, a retired judge who now is executive director of the Minnesota Association of County Attorneys, was in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota when he noticed the shift away from criminal litigation in the AG’s office nearly 20 years ago. “The criminal division was gutted,” he said. “And we [the U.S. Attorney] benefited greatly from that. We hired some top-notch attorneys out of that office.” In his role now, Small said, he has seen the struggles of smaller counties that cannot get assistance from the Attorney General’s Office and instead depend on larger counties to help out where they can. That is admirable of those counties, but they have their own caseloads. It’s unfair to ask their taxpayers to fill in a gap left by the state.

Meeting with the Editorial Board last week, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who took office in January, made a strong case for rebuilding the office’s criminal division. Lawmakers looking for ways to help greater Minnesota would be wise to talk to their county attorneys. Some are one-person shops or have only part-time lawyers. Complex drug and human trafficking cases, white-collar crimes and elaborate fraud schemes aren’t limited to urban areas. They can and do occur in every part of the state.

Gov. Tim Walz recognizes the need to rebuild an office that has been stretched too thin and, most importantly, left smaller county attorney offices without the expert assistance needed to successfully prosecute complex cases. He has recommended a modest increase of $4.2 million that would help the office rebuild its capabilities.

The AG’s office is expected to handle a volume, breadth and complexity of cases found in few other public law offices. In addition to defending laws passed by the Legislature, it prosecutes civil cases, including consumer complaints and fraud. It also works on appellate cases and is supposed to assist counties. The office provides legal representation for more than 100 state entities, including agencies, boards and commissions.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, who has held that post for more than 30 years, said he welcomes a more robust state AG’s office. Ellison, he said, has reached out to county attorneys across the state to learn of their struggles. “We’re excited about his commitment to support county attorneys, particularly those in smaller jurisdictions. That’s where the Attorney General’s Office can really play a vital role. Our county attorneys really need that help.”

The Legislature should see that they get it.