Senate hope eases AG’s office power through lawsuits

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) – Republican Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has sued China over the coronavirus. He signed a failed lawsuit aimed at overturning the 2020 presidential election results. Now, as he positions himself for a Senate race, he turns his attention closer to home and goes on to stop mask warrants in liberal towns across the state and Missouri schools.

For state attorneys general hoping to gain greater influence and advance their own political agendas, filing lawsuits has become an increasingly common strategy. The partisan divide on coronavirus restrictions has given GOP politicians an opening to show voters their conservative good faith and capitalize on public exhaustion with COVID-19 protocols a year and a half in a pandemic that shows no sign of decline.

For Schmitt, the fight for mask mandates could bolster his support in an overcrowded primary for the retirement of GOP Senator Roy Blunt’s seat in next year’s midterm elections.

Schmitt “takes advantage of what we call the grievance policy,” said Steven Puro, a retired University of St. Louis political scientist. “He’s going to play on it as much as he can.”

Schmitt’s spokesman presented the lawsuits as his means of “retaliating against government bureaucrats.”

“Nothing is out of place in our mission to push back the encroachment and overbringing of local government to the federal government on the freedoms and liberties of the people of Missouri,” Chris Nuelle said in a statement.

Schmitt, 46, is now pledging a fight against President Joe Biden’s federal vaccine mandate that all employers with more than 100 workers require that they be vaccinated or tested for the virus every week.

“Missouri has been a national leader in the fight against the Biden administration and the Covid-related mandates,” Schmitt tweeted last week. “Biden’s historic excess on vaccine warrants will not stay in Missouri.”

Although the job responsibilities vary by state, most attorneys general are responsible for defending state laws and constitutions and acting as watchdogs of consumer protection.

They have long had the power to bring headline prosecutions with political advantage, but Paul Nolette, an associate professor at Marquette University and an expert in state attorneys general, said they traditionally stuck to it. to less publicized lawsuits against crooks; and to defend state laws that are challenged in court.

Filing flashy court challenges became increasingly popular among Republican attorneys general during Obama’s time, Nolette said. When Donald Trump became president, Democratic attorneys general took it upon themselves to sue the White House for its policies.

“Now Republicans (attorneys general) are flexing their muscles during the Biden administration well, especially on this issue of suing municipalities and basically their own constituents, ”Nolette said. “I would say this is still unusual, but it has become more common in recent years.”

GOP attorneys general in the Red States are now focusing on liberal policies adopted by Democratic-majority cities, the one place Democrats have some control, he said.

For example, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has been fighting in court with San Antonio since 2018 over the city’s treatment of immigrants suspected of being illegally in the United States, accusing city officials of violating a new state law targeting what conservative critics call it “sanctuary cities”.

The practice is less common among Democratic attorneys general. Not because they’re less political, Nolette said, but because fewer people tend to live in rural Republican strongholds, so the impact of blocking conservative policies is less eye-catching there.

Even though Schmitt is technically suing his own constituents, University of Central Missouri political scientist Robynn Kuhlmann said Schmitt’s lawsuits would resonate radically differently with Republicans and Democrats.

“While it may seem like he is attacking voters from a liberal perspective, I think it’s important to note that for those who are conservative, it’s basically about standing up for rights and freedoms,” said Kuhlmann.

In the fight against mask warrants, Schmitt is taking action against guidelines from public health officials, who encourage the wearing of masks to stop the spread of COVID-19, especially when caused by the more contagious delta variant which caused a spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Schmitt’s lawsuit cites the low death rate among school-aged children, and he stressed the importance of letting families make their own decisions about health.

A spokesperson for Columbia Public Schools said in a statement after Schmitt sued that the district was “extremely disappointed to learn that the Missouri attorney general chose to take legal action against the school district for providing security measures to its academics, teachers and staff “.

But Republicans might find there are limits to such moves. A recent Republican-fueled effort in California to recall Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, in part because of the COVID-19 restrictions it imposed, failed amid growing concerns about the pernicious nature of the delta variant.

Lawsuits can be used as a tool for politically ambitious attorneys general to gain name recognition, fundraising and votes, Nolette said.

The tactic works, Nolette said, because attorneys general can sue and immediately cash in recognition for taking action. The process is more complicated for a state legislator, who has to work months and sometimes years to get a law passed.

“Some of these lawsuits, even though you expect them to go nowhere, the point is you can still sue and get a hearing, no matter how ridiculous the argument is,” Nolette said. .

Schmitt’s lawsuit to hold China accountable for the COVID-19 pandemic is pending in federal court, and the Chinese government has refused to participate. Lawsuits against other countries usually go nowhere because US law generally prohibits them.

Schmitt is making more progress in his lawsuits against local masking rules. He scored a victory last month when a Missouri judge banned St. Louis County from applying its mask warrant while Schmitt’s trial goes on in court.

A number of Missouri attorneys general have used this position as a stepping stone to higher political office.

Republican John Ashcroft was Attorney General from 1977 to 1985, then was elected Governor of Missouri and United States Senator, then appointed United States Attorney General under President George W. Bush.

Democrat Jay Nixon served as attorney general from 1993 to 2009, when he was elected governor. And Schmitt’s predecessor, Republican Josh Hawley, served as attorney general for two years before catapulting himself into the US Senate.

The stakes are high for Schmitt, who faces many other Republican Senate candidates, including former Governor Eric Greitens, who resigned amid the scandal in 2018, and Mark McCloskey, who was recently pardoned with his wife for brandishing weapons against social justice protesters last year. United States Representative Vicky Hartzler and Billy Long also run.

And even though Missouri is now considered a Red state, Republicans fear the overcrowded field will give Greitens a path to the GOP nomination and possibly squander what should be an easy victory for Republicans.

If Schmitt is to win, Puro said, he needs to quickly wipe out the GOP’s field. Filing lawsuits that grab the attention of state voters and wealthy domestic donors will help, Kuhlmann said.

“It allows name recognition to occur in that crowded area, and also some credit claim in that he has this position as attorney general and acts to defend the laws of Missouri,” she said. declared.

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