Politics

What Legal Experience Does Georgia’s Attorney General Need?

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal waits to deliver his State of the State address on the House floor at the Capitol Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal waits to deliver his State of the State address on the House floor at the Capitol Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Credit David Goldman / Associated Press
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Georgia’s new attorney general has never tried a case, and he hasn’t practiced law in over a decade. The governor says he’s qualified; others say they’re more skeptical.

Gov. Nathan Deal said Chris Carr’s time heading the state’s Economic Development Department shows he can handle running a big institution, and that the role of attorney general is primarily about administrating.

Jim Tierney, a former Maine attorney general and head of Harvard’s State Attorney General Clinic, agreed that managing attorneys is a big part of the job.

“What’s most important to doing the job is having good legal judgment. And good legal judgment comes from any number of backgrounds,” Tierney said. “It can come from someone who’s never practiced law and spent all their lives in business.”

Tierney said he’s seen Ivy League lawyers fail at the job and attorneys who barely passed the Bar go on to make great attorneys general.

“These decisions are difficult decisions. Do you seek the death penalty or not? Do you seek to bring an environmental case that may have economic repercussions or not?” he said. “How do you deal with your increasingly diverse state where so many of your residents don’t speak English as their first language? How do you deal with complicated health care mergers?”

He said attorneys general can get advice and guidance from the lawyers they oversee, but at the end of the day those major decisions are left to them. Tierney points to current Attorney General Sam Olens’ decision to challenge Deal’s executive order aimed at blocking Syrian refugees from the state as an example of exercising legal judgment.

Carr’s political allegiance to Deal, and therefor disincentive to operate independently, has also been brought up as another concern by some. Tierney said in some states, all attorneys general are appointed. In other states, he said worries about independence are common, but infrequently realized. It’s also something that comes up regardless of how the office is filled.

“If they’re elected, the question is ‘Can they be independent from their campaign donors? Can they be independent from their political party? Can they be independent from perhaps their own ambitions>’ Because everybody assumes that an attorney general wants to be elected to something else,” said Tierney, adding that Olens appears to have proved that final assumption in error.

Tierney said the truth is there’s no way to guess how effective Carr will be as attorney general until he’s doing the work.

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