Washington state Dems seek exit from health care reform lawsuit

The (Tacoma) News TribuneNovember 19, 2010 

Twenty state attorneys general are suing to halt President Barack Obama’s signature piece of legislation. Washington Democrats would love to make it 19.

But knocking Attorney General Rob McKenna out of the multi-state lawsuit against federal health care reform will require convincing the state Supreme Court.

An attorney for the City of Seattle tried Thursday, but the city has a steep legal hill to climb. First, City Attorney Pete Holmes’ lawyers must show why a city government has any business challenging decisions of a state official. Some justices seemed skeptical. Second, they must prove McKenna is overstepping his authority by striking out on his own.

“This court,” Assistant City Attorney Laura Wishik said, “has never approved of the attorney general initiating a lawsuit on his own, without an agency or officer as a client, and without the governor’s (consent).”

The city argues the Legislature has authorized the attorney general to take action in only certain areas. Mc-Kenna says a catch-all provision in the law gives him broader authority. The attorney general “shall also represent the state and all officials,” it says, “... in all legal or quasi legal matters.”

“The attorney general derives his authority from the law, and not the permission of other state officers,” said state Solicitor General Maureen Hart, who argued McKenna’s case.

Together with another case argued Thursday involving McKenna, Seattle’s case has implications for the role of an elected attorney general. Is he free to pursue his own agenda, or is he mostly just the lawyer for state agencies?

There are also political implications, or else the courtroom crowd wouldn’t have included observers such as Aaron Ostrom, executive director of liberal advocacy group Fuse.

McKenna is seen as a likely Republican candidate for governor in 2012. Democrats say his opposition to health care reform is political posturing. They hope it backfires to shatter McKenna’s moderate image.

“It would appear to me that he’s siding with corporations and private interests,” Ostrom said.

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