Swallow fallout has lawmakers asking questions about attorney general election

Published: Saturday, Feb. 15 2014 2:24 p.m. MST

Utah Attorney General John Swallow speaks out Monday, Jan. 14, 2013 in his office at the State Capitol about allegations that he was involved in improper deals.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News Archives

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SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah Senate committee found a proposal to appoint rather than elect the state's attorney general interesting enough to move it forward for more discussion.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, acknowledged his resolution calling for the governor to choose his own attorney general isn't perfect and faces an uphill battle. But he and members of the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee say it's worthy of debate on the floor and passed SJR3 unanimously.

"It's an intriguing idea," said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, though he added he likely won't vote for it on the floor.

Weiler said it's something he has thought about for years, but the scandal that drove former Attorney General John Swallow from office last December prompted him to run a bill this session. He said he wants to remove fundraising and politicking form the state's top law enforcement job.

Weiler noted the huge fundraising disparity in the races for state treasurer and attorney general last year.

"The state treasurer can do nothing for his donors; the attorney general can," he said.

Thatcher said the idea of buying the attorney general's office with donations would just be transferred to the governor's office, making it more difficult to scrutinize.

If SJR3 passes both the Senate and the House with a two-thirds majority vote, it would go on the 2014 general election ballot for voters to decide whether to make attorney general an appointed office.

"This is not something that the Legislature would unilaterally change," Weiler said.

Under the proposal, a bipartisan nominating commission would advance five names to the governor for consideration. The governor's selection would go before the Senate for confirmation. The attorney general would serve one six-year term and could not be reappointed.

"This makes full sense to me," Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, said.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he supports the resolution but "good luck getting it passed by the people because they're going to be defensive about losing their right to choose."

Weiler said because the attorney general represents the governor, the governor should have a say in who holds that position. He said the state has been dysfunctional in the past when the two officeholders had different agendas or were at odds.

Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, said that could happen each time there's a change of power or party in the governor's office due to the attorney general serving a six-year term. He said there's some validity to the argument that the two offices should be of like mind.

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com, Twitter: dennisromboy

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