Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Meet the candidates: Minnesota Attorney General

Ellison, Wardlow discuss their records, views, and priorities

Following Minnesota’s August 14 primary election, MSBA Access to Justice Director Sherri Knuth sent seven questions to the major party nominees for Attorney General of Minnesota, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (DFL) and former Minnesota state Rep. Doug Wardlow (R). We present their unabridged responses here.

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Describe one of your proudest accomplishments as a working lawyer.

Doug Wardlow: While practicing international-trade litigation at Skadden Arps under current U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, I put my legal skills and my Mandarin Chinese language ability to good use developing the basis for successful countervailing-duty petitions on unfairly traded imports of a number of steel products from China. The resulting duties on those steel products halted enormous quantities of unfairly traded steel from entering the United States, saving thousands of jobs in the steel industry and on the Iron Range. 

Keith Ellison: My proudest accomplishment as a lawyer was the work I did as executive director of the Legal Rights Center. As the leader of this nonprofit law firm, I oversaw a team of attorneys working to provide free public defense to hundreds of clients who had nowhere else to turn to ensure their legal rights were upheld.

How does your prior experience, legal and otherwise, qualify you to serve as Attorney General?

Keith Ellison: Before entering politics, I spent 16 years as an attorney specializing in civil rights and defense law, including five years as the executive director of the Legal Rights Center. As the leader of this public interest law firm, I oversaw a team of attorneys focused on delivering justice for Minnesotans. In Congress, I championed consumer, worker, and civil rights protections to defend the rights of Minnesotans against the interests of the powerful. I know how legislation like the Affordable Care Act came together—and how it could come apart, without state Attorneys General to defend it. I am the candidate in this race with the best experience to protect the rights and freedoms of all Minnesotans as Attorney General.

Doug Wardlow: I have spent my legal career championing the people’s most important legal and constitutional rights. I have fought for Minnesotans’ property rights in eminent domain disputes, defended our free speech rights in First Amendment cases, and fought for Minnesotans’ prosperity in international trade disputes. That broad experience, my particular expertise in constitutional litigation, and my experience in the lawmaking process as a state representative have prepared me well to serve as Minnesota’s lawyer. 

What would be your top priorities upon assuming the Attorney General’s office?

Doug Wardlow: When I assume the office of Attorney General, I will take the politics out of the office and focus on enforcing the law and standing up for the legal rights of all Minnesotans. My top priorities will include rebuilding the criminal law division of the office; building an efficient consumer protection division that enforces Minnesota’s consumer fraud laws fairly and effectively; preventing state agencies from overstepping their statutory authority; prosecuting welfare fraud; preventing opioid abuse and combatting opioid pushers; combatting elder abuse; and fighting human trafficking. 

Keith Ellison: As Attorney General my top priorities would be:

Make health care more affordable for Minnesota families by defending the Affordable Care Act and holding pharmaceutical and health insurance companies accountable for skyrocketing prices. 

Make our economy more fair for everyone, not just those at the top. I will stand up to companies that deceive Minnesotans and violate our antitrust laws, and protect the rights of working Minnesotans to organize for better pay and job conditions for all. 

Protect equal opportunity for all Minnesotans, by defending the rights and freedoms of all Minnesotans. That includes protecting women’s access to health care choices, and protecting our black, brown, and immigrant neighbors from discrimination and harm.

Among the civil matters within the purview of the Attorney General’s office, what would you focus on?

Keith Ellison: One of my top priorities will be to hold big corporations accountable when they try to step on the rights of workers, consumers, small businesses, and our clean air and water. That means enforcing the law when companies pollute in our communities, try to illegally raise prices on generic prescription drugs, open bank accounts you didn’t ask for, or don’t pay employees what they’re owed for the work they do.

Doug Wardlow: I will investigate collusive and unfair practices that are keeping the prices of prescription drugs and other healthcare-related goods and services artificially high. I will also focus on consumer fraud litigation, including enforcement actions against the perpetrators of financial scams that target senior citizens, and I plan to bring civil lawsuits to recover welfare funds defrauded from the state. In addition, as one part of a comprehensive plan to deal with the opioid crisis, I will bring lawsuits against drug manufacturers that sell or market opioids in a manner that violates Minnesota law. I will also focus substantial resources on the growing problem of the administrative state in Minnesota, taking all necessary and proper measures to prevent state agencies from implementing rules or practices that exceed the agencies’ statutory authority or violate the separation of powers or other provisions of the state Constitution.

What role would you take with respect to criminal law?

Doug Wardlow: As Attorney General, I will take a much more active role with respect to criminal law than previous Attorneys General. I plan to rebuild the criminal-law division, bringing on additional attorneys to make sure that our county attorneys—our frontline prosecutors—have all the resources and support that they need to prosecute criminals and keep Minnesota’s families safe. 

I will also support and collaborate with law enforcement through training programs and other joint initiatives to deal with rising crime rates in our cities. I will take the lead on significant statewide criminal law issues. Working with county attorneys, law enforcement, and public-interest groups, I will develop and implement a comprehensive plan to put an end to human trafficking in Minnesota. In addition, I will work with law enforcement and prosecutors to combat opioid pushers while working with legislators and state agencies to implement education and prevention initiatives to prevent further loss of life to opioids.

Keith Ellison: I would first work to make sure the criminal division is fully staffed within the Attorney General’s office. I would also work directly with local law enforcement and county attorneys to make sure they have the support and resources they need to tackle the problems they are facing in their communities. It is vital that we have an Attorney General who listens and supports officials in local communities about the problems they are facing. 

Additionally, I would work to reduce incarceration, probation, and parole rates to enhance public safety, while helping people get back on their feet and successfully reintegrate into their communities. I would ensure that every Minnesotan has equal access to justice, starting with increased support for our public defenders. I will also work to eliminate cash bail laws that prey on the poor and powerless in our system.

What is the role of a state Attorney General with respect to federal laws or executive actions?

Keith Ellison: As Attorney General, my job is to protect the rights and freedoms of the people of Minnesota. If federal laws or executive actions do not respect the best interests of the people of Minnesota, part of my job as Attorney General will be to push back on the federal government. When the Trump Administration threatens our labor laws and environmental standards, and engages in cruel policies of family separation at the border, Attorneys General have a responsibility to stand up and defend people’s rights. 

Doug Wardlow: In general, the Minnesota Attorney General should focus on enforcing Minnesota’s laws and standing up for the legal rights of Minnesotans. At times, when federal action violates federal law to the detriment of Minnesotans, it may be necessary to consider litigation against the federal government. But it is entirely inappropriate to use the office of the Attorney General to fight political battles or bring politically motivated lawsuits against the federal government, and I will never do so.

Is there anything on which you and your opponent from the other major party agree?

Doug Wardlow: My opponent and I probably agree that the office of the Minnesota Attorney General is a very significant and influential constitutional office.

Keith Ellison: Doug Wardlow and I have very different priorities for the Attorney General’s office. While my priority is to protect the rights and freedoms of all Minnesotans, Wardlow has said he would use the office to advance President Trump’s agenda, and would take the side of powerful corporations over the best interests of the people of Minnesota.

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