Attorney General Rob McKenna was within his legal rights to bring Washington into the lawsuit against the federal government’s health care overhaul, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously today.
In two rulings issued today regarding the state attorney general’s authority, McKenna won one and lost the other. More to come on the loss. But in the one that was more closely watched because it involved the hot-button issue of President Obama’s health care law, the Republican attorney general and gubernatorial candidate prevailed.
In a 9-0 decision, the justices rejected Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes’s request for the court to order McKenna to withdraw Washington from the lawsuit.
The people of the state of Washington have, by statute, vested the attorney general with broad authority, and Attorney General McKenna’s decision to sue to enjoin the enforcement of the PPACA falls within that broad authority. As such, Attorney General McKenna has no mandatory duty to withdraw the State from the multistate litigation.
Justices relied on their past interpretation of a state law allowing the attorney general to
Appear for and represent the state before the supreme court or the court of appeals in all cases in which the state is interested
Quoting from earlier cases, they wrote that means the AG has
discretionary authority to act in any court, state or federal, trial or appellate, on “a matter of public concern,” … provided that there is a “cognizable common law or statutory cause of action”
However, the governor may be able to keep the attorney general out of such a lawsuit. The court didn’t rule directly on that, but said:
In her amicus curiae brief to this court, Governor Gregoire argues that where the governor and attorney general disagree, the attorney general may not proceed in the name of the State. This argument is not wholly without merit, as article III, section 2 of the Washington Constitution vests in the governor “[t]he supreme executive power of this state.”
Justices said they couldn’t decide that issue because Gov. Chris Gregoire hasn’t officially sought to stop McKenna, even though she has disagreed with his joining the lawsuit.
UPDATE 10:58 a.m.: McKenna issued a statement saying in part:
I’m pleased the court affirmed the authority and responsibility of the Attorney General to challenge the constitutionality of federal laws that threaten the constitutional rights of this state and its people. It’s important that the state’s constitutionally-established, independently-elected Attorney General – whomever it may be — have the authority to protect the legal rights of the state and its people in the years to come.