In just over a week, Wisconsin voters will face a ballot asking them to choose, among other things, the state's next attorney general.
Attorneys general races often have a lower profile, garnering less media coverage and public attention than gubernatorial or congressional races. Yet the role is one of the most significant in the executive branch and wields sizable prosecutorial discretion and influence over citizens' lives.
Attorneys general nationwide are also becoming more active on a national level, banding together to advance cases challenging federal policy. The position came out of England and became a part of state governments after the Revolutionary War. They were designed to be independent, keeping states apart from the federal government.
In this year's race, incumbent Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel is facing Democratic challenger attorney Josh Kaul. The latest Marquette Law School Poll on Oct. 10 gave Schimel a four-point edge over Kaul. The next poll, the last before the Nov. 6 election, comes out Wednesday.
Here are some questions and answers from Zack Roday, of the Republican Attorneys General Association and Lizzie Ulmer, of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, about what the attorney general does and why it matters.
What are the core functions of the AG's office?
Roday: "The Wisconsin Department of Justice is the state law enforcement agency — with the attorney general serving as the top cop. The AG impacts every single person in Wisconsin, from a general perspective — partnering with local, state and federal law enforcement to keep communities safe, to the specific — going after pill pushers and elder abuse violators."
Ulmer: "An Attorney general’s core function is to be the lawyer for the people. Regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, ability, socioeconomic status — a good AG is the leader you can trust to protect you. Although the specific powers and jurisdiction of state attorneys general very widely state to state, a good attorney general is on the front lines of protecting the families and communities in their state. For example, state attorneys general may bring consumer protection actions, operate victim compensation programs, sponsor state legislation that protects natural resources in their state, or file lawsuits against bad actors for violating the constitution."
Why is this role relevant to a Wisconsin resident’s life?
Roday: "The AG is leading the fight against the opioid epidemic — a scourge impacting the entire state — so it’s critically important to have the right person in the job."
Ulmer: "Attorneys general are the only elected officials with the drive and the power to protect our democracy and hold others accountable. If people care about health care, protecting the Dreamers, workers' rights, keeping the internet fair and open, preventing gun violence, tackling the opioid crisis, safeguarding natural resources, protecting reproductive rights, protecting victims of sexual assault, then they need to pay attention to the AG race."
The governor and Senate races are taking up a lot of attention. Why should people pay attention to the AG race in Wisconsin and vote in it?
Roday: "People want their government to keep them safe and to be fair. The AG is the ultimate protector — they keep our schools and streets safe. And, an AG must defend the law — regardless of political preference — to ensure fairness. We (RAGA) conducted focus groups with voters in both Green Bay and Milwaukee; separate groups with men and women. The participants were active voters who were undecided in the AG race and do not strongly identify as either Republicans or Democrats but are independent. Two points here — experience and trust. Folks were able to identify Brad Schimel as attorney general, but few knew specifics about the role of the attorney general — except those with a law enforcement background/awareness."
Ulmer: "This matters to the people of Wisconsin because if you elect a good AG — one that is committed to putting people first — they will protect the most vulnerable and marginalized members of their state and keep residents safe."
So what does an attorney general do, day-to-day?
It varies state by state, but in Wisconsin, the attorney general leads the state Department of Justice, which employs more than 800 people including about 200 attorneys. Attorneys general are also the lawyers for state government, so they defend the state if it gets sued. They also take enforcement actions, which would include a lawsuit against other entities, on behalf of the state. The attorney general can also issue a formal opinion as to what the law should be to guide state agencies or lawmakers.
The attorney general also has criminal jurisdiction, so he or she prosecutes high-level criminal cases that might be referred to DOJ from county district attorneys or come to the agency from appellate courts. Day-to-day, the attorney general could work on all of these cases with assistant attorneys general at DOJ. The attorney general could also work on developing task forces to address specific issues and work with lawmakers to develop legislation on legal or criminal justice issues. He or she might also travel the state to work with local law enforcement agencies and district attorneys on certain criminal justice issues.
Where can I go to read more about the role of AGs generally and what other policy issues does the office cover?
StateAG.org is an educational website created by former Maine Attorney General James Tierney, who lectures on attorneys general at Harvard Law School and led the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School. The site offers research on policy areas attorneys general address. According to the site, it works with state attorneys general staff throughout the country to build alliances with state agencies and nonprofit organizations to address legal and policy issues facing state government.