Gov. Kim Reynolds vetoes measure limiting Iowa attorney general's power to join multi-state lawsuits
Gov. Kim Reynolds on Wednesday vetoed legislation that would have limited the powers of the Iowa attorney general's office, in exchange for a promise from the current attorney general to seek the governor's permission before filing some lawsuits.
The measure that the Republican governor vetoed, passed by the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature last month, was intended as a rebuke of Democratic Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller's decision to join lawsuits targeting President Donald Trump.
Republicans still got much of what they wanted. After meeting privately with the governor and negotiating through staff, Miller agreed not to file out-of-state lawsuits on behalf of the State of Iowa without the consent of the governor's office. But he could continue to file suits when the Attorney General of Iowa is the plaintiff.
"Neither side gets all it wants," Miller said. "I would rather not have to get the governor’s consent, but that’s part of the agreement. It's still much better than the situation with the language in the statute."
Had Reynolds let the measure become law, Iowa Code would have required the attorney general to seek permission from the governor, Legislature or executive council — which includes the governor — to join multi-state lawsuits. Iowa would have been the only state with such a provision.
While Reynolds will now have more power over the attorney general's lawsuits, it is only by consent, not law.
"Attorney General Miller has agreed that so long as he serves as attorney general, he will not prosecute any action or proceeding or sign onto or author an amicus brief in the name of the State of Iowa in any court or tribunal other than an Iowa state court without the consent of the governor," Reynolds said in the statement. "He retains the authority to participate in litigation or author letters in his own name, as Attorney General of Iowa."
That means Miller still has the power to pursue litigation, even against Trump, without the governor's permission as the office of Attorney General. He agreed to file suits as the state of Iowa officially only with the governor's sign-off.
A 'good-faith' bipartisan compromise
Miller, in a statement, said his agreement with Reynolds "means that, generally, I will not be suing the Trump administration." He said it was more important to protect the power and duties of the attorney general's office than join those suits.
The nation's longest-serving attorney general, Miller had lobbied the Legislature not to approve the measure. When that failed, he met privately with Reynolds to oppose the measure. Past and current attorneys general from both parties joined him in opposition.
Reynolds and Miller met only once, where they expressed their opinions and concerns about the legislation and Miller's involvement in Trump lawsuits, Miller said. Their staffs then met, which led to the ultimate agreement, Miller said.
"This is a good-faith agreement between Gov. Reynolds and me," Miller said in his statement. "In my opinion, there are too few good-faith compromises today in Washington and Des Moines. This also leads me to make this agreement."
Along with being able to join multi-state lawsuits on behalf of the Attorney General of Iowa, Miller can also continue to participate in consumer enforcement actions and speak out on issues before federal agencies and Congress, he said.
Limits on state attorneys general sweep the nation
The move to limit the authority of attorneys general has swept other Republican-dominated states.
Wisconsin passed a measure limiting the powers of its attorney general and governor in a 2018 lame duck session after Democrats won both offices. The law is currently held up in the courts.
In Michigan, Republican lawmakers passed a bill in late 2018 to allow the Legislature to intervene in certain legal battles — a move seen as encroaching on then-incoming Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat. Former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed the legislation in December.
Miller said the Iowa proposal went further than those in other states.
Lawsuits against Trump will continue. Iowa just won't be part of them.
With Miller's agreement to avoid filing cases without the governor's buy-in, he said he is unlikely to join further lawsuits against Trump. But states will still sue the president.
"We're willing to stand aside in those lawsuits regarding the next 20 months," Miller said.
Miller’s office joined six multi-state lawsuits targeting the Trump administration in 2018, according to his office. The cases included challenges to the administration’s separation of families at the border; whether to add a question on citizenship to the 2020 census; weakening of vehicle emissions standards; and the repeal of net neutrality. The attorney general’s office also joined 26 “friend of the court,” or amicus briefs, and 50 letters challenging or commenting on Trump administration actions last year.
Miller said he believes the lawsuits he has joined against the Trump administration were grounded in the law and supported by Iowans.
In an interview with the Des Moines Register earlier this month, Miller said multi-state lawsuits against the president’s actions are an important check on executive overreach. Republican attorneys general filed numerous lawsuits against former President Barack Obama, and Miller sees the lawsuits against Trump’s actions as providing a similar balance.
"I think that’s something that’s healthy and goes to the best concepts of checks and balances that our forefathers set up," he said.
Democrats praised Reynolds for vetoing the measure, while Republicans noted that her agreement with Miller met their goal of reining in lawsuits against the Trump administration. Her veto means the attorney general's powers will be intact should a Republican win the office in the future.
"I applaud her for it. She’s taking the long view. Republicans were taking the short view. She’s doing the right thing," said Rep. Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines and an attorney.
"I appreciate that Governor Reynolds recognized the concerns we had and worked out an agreement that meets our goals," said Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake. "If the Attorney General wants to continue participating in partisan lawsuits that aren’t in the best interest of Iowans, he needs to let Iowans know that he is making that decision on his own."
— Reporter Barbara Rodriguez contributed to this article.