Constitution allows state attorney general broad use of powers
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Each time Patrick Morrisey has announced a new goal for his administration, from his statewide "Jobs Summit" tour to his plans to take on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for what he calls "federal overreach," critics have wondered whether the newly elected attorney general has the authority to make good on those promises.
Naturally, Morrisey has defended his plans. He claims the state constitution and state law have granted his office wide, albeit rarely used, authority.
And he's probably correct.
West Virginia University law professor Bob Bastress said the state constitution is quite vague on the role of the attorney general.
"This is true of all the constitutional officers, other than the governor. Their duties are all pretty much as prescribed by the Legislature," Bastress said.
He said state law also gives the attorney general a wide range of powers and authority. The court system also has tried to define the attorney general's duties, Bastress said, but that has been complicated.
"Trying to define them has eluded the courts so far," he said.
The state Supreme Court has ruled that the attorney general is the "premiere warrior" for the state but must act in a traditional attorney/client relationship when representing a state agency.
The way Morrisey sees it, there are five basic jobs of the attorney general. Those include writing legal opinions on issues affecting West Virginia, representing the state and state agencies in lawsuits, investigating certain violations of state law, drafting legislation at the request of state agencies, and suggesting new bills to legislators.
"There's a lot of focus on what the attorney general can do. The attorney general, by definition, is going to be involved in all legal issues within a state," he said.
Morrisey said his Jobs Summit tour, intended to improve the state's business climate and reduce unemployment, falls within several of those powers.
He said if a state agency espouses a policy that hurts the state's economy, it would be within the attorney general's rights to give advice on the policy.
"If we see something that seems silly or excessive or contrary to the rule of law, we would volunteer that information to the state agency clients," he said. "That's when you can both weigh in on legal issues but also provide assistance to your client. Being a lawyer isn't only about being a litigator; it's about being an advocate. It's about being a counselor."
Morrisey said the Attorney General's Office also could investigate businesses or state agencies not complying with the rule of law. That includes the office's consumer protection division, which enters class action lawsuits on behalf of state residents.
He said the office also can advise agencies on the way they comply with state law.
"My philosophy is, we want to ensure 100 percent compliance with all laws. But if there is a less burdensome way to comply with the law, that's perfectly reasonable. The goal is not to saddle businesses with unbearable burdens," he said.
The office's recent work on West Virginia University's media rights controversy also is an example of the many roles of the attorney general, Morrisey said.
Earlier in the year, WVU officials contacted Morrisey's newly created Public Integrity Unit to ask for a review of its media rights contracts. Sources have said WVU was set to sign over its Tier 3 broadcasting and marketing rights to the media firm IMG College as part of a 12-year, $110 million contract.
But John Raese, owner of West Virginia Radio Corp., alleged there were conflicts of interest in the bidding process. West Virginia Radio Corp. currently handles radio broadcasts of WVU games and also bid on Tier 3 games.
Enter the Attorney General's Office. After a five-week review of the situation, Morrisey found no evidence of "intentional wrongdoing" in the bidding process but found "significant errors and sloppiness." He recommended the university start the bidding process over.
Morrisey said his office was both acting as WVU's attorney and investigating potential improprieties of a state agency.
Writer Jared Hunt contributed to this report.