Attorney general candidates spar over lawsuits against Biden administration

By: - June 9, 2022 8:12 pm

Democrat Tom Miller, left, and Republican Brenna Bird will face off in November’s election for Iowa attorney general. (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Republican candidate for Iowa attorney general Brenna Bird says she plans to take the Biden administration to court if elected in November. Incumbent Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, says that’s not what the office is about and he’ll focus on serving everyday Iowans.

If elected, Bird said she plans to challenge the Biden administration on any regulations she believes are outside of the rule of law, including mask and vaccine mandates, environmental restrictions and border policies that allow undocumented people and illegal drugs into the U.S. Bird said she would fight against the revival of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) regulation.

Miller said his view of the attorney general’s role differs.

“That’s the basic difference between me and my opponent: She sees the office primarily as suing the Biden administration. I see it primarily as serving the interest of ordinary Iowans,” Miller said. “… That is part of the major theme of her campaign which is sort of a crusade against the Biden administration. I think the Iowa Attorney General’s Office is different than that.”

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds criticized Miller in May when she told a crowd at a GOP event she wanted her “own” attorney general. Reynolds’ remarks were criticized in turn by Democrats, who pointed out the attorney general is an independent office-holder who doesn’t work for the governor.

Asked how she would withstand political pressures to ensure justice, Bird said she is glad to have the governor’s support.

“I think we need an attorney general who is going to represent Iowa and take on the federal government in court, that is what I will do,” Bird said. “What I hear is Governor Reynolds wants an attorney general who won’t sit on the sidelines and go along with Biden but rather one who will stand up for agriculture, will stand up for Iowans, for their constitutional rights and freedoms in federal court.”

GOP lawmakers worked to stop Miller from suing the Trump administration

Miller’s office joined other states in a half-dozen lawsuits in 2018 challenging Trump administration policies, including separation of migrant families at the U.S. border and requiring citizenship information in the U.S. Census, the Des Moines Register reported.

That stopped in 2019, when the GOP-controlled Legislature approved legislation to require an attorney general to receive approval from the governor, the Legislature or the executive council before entering out-of-state lawsuits. Reynolds vetoed the measure in exchange for a “good-faith agreement” with Miller, stating that he will receive consent from the governor if he wished to join in an out-of-state lawsuit in the name of the state. At the time, this meant Miller would not sue the Trump administration.

Reynolds and Miller came to this conclusion after they discussed the importance of preserving the power of the position for the future, Miller said at the time.

Miller is nation’s longest-serving state attorney general

Miller has held the attorney general’s office since 1978, except between 1990 and 1994. He ran for governor in 1990 and came in second to Don Avenson in the Democratic primary. He was re-elected in 1994 and has served continuously since.

He is now the longest-serving attorney general in the country and he serves as the president of the National Association of Attorneys General. As president, Miller chose consumer protection as a broad area of focus for the association, which includes taking on big tech. Miller’s office joined other state attorneys general in a lawsuit against Google alleging violations of antitrust laws.

Bird sees enthusiasm for this year’s campaign

In 2018, Bird was elected to serve as Guthrie County attorney. She also has worked as chief counsel to former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. Under the Branstad administration, Bird  joined a lawsuit to challenge the Affordable Care Act. She was the GOP nominee for attorney general in 2010 but lost to Miller by 11 percentage points. 

This election year is different, Bird said, and she is finding stronger support as she travels across Iowa. “As I am around the state, there is a lot of enthusiasm,” Bird said. “I think people are disappointed to see our attorney general sitting on the sidelines and going along with the Biden administration.”

More candidate goals

Along with pushing back “federal government overreach,” Bird said she backs the blue and would be an advocate for law enforcement. As attorney general, she said she would support the office’s Criminal Appeals Division, which works to defend criminal convictions and sentences against appeals. 

“I would also make sure that the Attorney General’s Office is working hard for Iowa, serving all of Iowa, including those that are outside of Polk County,” Bird said. “I am campaigning in all 99 counties, working hard and meeting with people. There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm out there and we feel a lot of support.”

Miller said his office has served as a sounding board for county law enforcement agencies, and he’s also focused on supporting crime victims. He said he wants to continue to address the opioid crisis and consumer protections against the big tech industry. He plans to campaign the same way he did when he sought the office in 1978: using politics to serve the people.

“We decided we would use the law to serve ordinary Iowans, that is what I talked about on the campaign and that is what we are doing in office,” Miller said. “And then we call ′em as we see them, we do what we thought was the right thing, particularly when interpreting the law. I try to reach voters by doing those things every day.”

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Kate Kealey
Kate Kealey

Katherine Kealey is a senior majoring in journalism and political science at Iowa State University. Before interning at the Iowa Capital Dispatch, she interned at the Carroll Times Herald. She will serve as the editor-in-chief of the Iowa State Daily in the fall.

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