Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller

Apr 26, 2019  | 27 min  | Ep 4633 | Podcast | Transcript


The 2019 Iowa legislature is winding down this week and key bills are already on their way to the Governor. One bill has new restrictions on Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, our guest on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.    


For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, April 26 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Democrat Tom Miller was re-elected to a 10th term in 2018. He is currently in his 37th year as Iowa's Attorney General. This past week, republicans in the legislature passed a proposal that would require the Attorney General to seek prior approval before joining multi-state lawsuits challenging perhaps Trump administration policies. The Attorney General would have to get approval from Iowa's republican Governor Kim Reynolds, the republican-led Executive Council or the republican majority legislature. We'll ask Attorney General Tom Miller about this proposal as other topics. Welcome back to Iowa Press.

Miller: Glad to be back. Thanks for having me back. It has been a while. Good to be here.

Henderson: Also joining us today, David Pitt of the Associated Press and Erin Murphy of Lee Enterprises.

Murphy: Attorney General Miller, Kay described the proposal that has been approved in both chambers of the Capitol now and is on its way to Governor Reynolds' desk for her consideration. As you look at that bill, and I know you've been following it closely, why do you think you have found yourself and the office in this predicament?

Miller: Well, you never know when you come to the office what the issue is going to be. But I think what probably brought this about was our lawsuits against the Trump administration. We didn't have a lot of lawsuits and last year we had 6 and 1 this year. And I brought those lawsuits only when I thought the law and the interest of Iowans indicated that I should do that, that I take this job incredibly seriously, particularly when it comes to a lawsuit. Some of the cases that we brought a lawsuit on were net neutrality, which we think is really important to consumers generally and to rural Iowa in terms of coverage and ability. We had some cases in the immigration area and separation of children from family and protecting the DACA of folks. We also were involved in the case concerning the 3D guns, the ability to make guns that would pass through security. We wanted some restrictions on that. And also we tried to, were trying to support the continuation of the pre-existing condition aspect of the Affordable Care Act. So we thought that all of those were in the interest of Iowans. I think to the extent that we have polls, we run the majority side of opinion in our state, and thought that was the thing to do. And also, I have a record as Attorney General and I had two years of litigation against the Trump administration. I faced the voters with that in mind and they overwhelmingly re-elected me.

Murphy: So you mentioned some of the cases you've been involved with. Republicans say you didn't enter as many of those cases, if any, during the Obama administration, that you didn't sue the Obama administration. And also many of those cases you would see multi-state lawsuits and they would list the states and they were almost all democratic attorneys general. Have you, as republicans allege, politicized this office? Have you made it more about politics than defending Iowans, as you said?

Miller: No, absolutely not. I would never do that. I take this office very seriously. I take approach of very much a professionalism approach to the law. Nothing is more important to the law than litigation. I did bring one case with Governor Branstad against the Obama administration concerning the Waters of the United States. But what has happened here, it shouldn't surprise people, that during the Obama administration the republican attorney generals brought cases against him. During this administration democrats by and large are bringing cases against the Trump administration. And that is part of our checks and balances, that when there is an administration and there is overreach, for a variety of reasons it is most likely people of the opposite party and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, that is a natural check and balance which is healthy. And, after all, what we're talking about is not us deciding anything, the judge decides. So I think this is very much professional and it's not political.

Pitt: Your democratic defenders in the Iowa Senate have certainly said that someone needs to challenge the President. Did you feel the need to do that, especially when Congress was dominated by republicans and maybe there was a feeling they weren't challenging him enough? Did you feel that was something that you needed to step in and do?

Miller: There certainly was some thinking and feeling that when the House and Senate were republican in Washington and the Trump administration was doing things that we felt other administrations hadn't done and that they were violating the law, that there was an important role for democratic AG's and we took that seriously. My colleagues banded together, we have a very close relationship among democratic AG's and also with republican attorney generals. So we felt a need and obligation perhaps then that we feel less so now with the democrats controlling the House and being a check on some of the things that we would be concerned about.

Pitt: One of the questions that a lot of people out there may ask is what do ordinary Iowans get out of these challenges, these court cases? What does that mean to Iowans to have you on their behalf take on these things?

Miller: Well let's look at two cases that we're involved in. The net neutrality, that is a very important case for consumers. It's a little bit complicated. But it means that consumers and businesses are treated basically equal, that in the competition on the Internet that one company can't favor another or favor its own products or slow down the services. It is a very important consumer protection case. And we have I think a rich and successful tradition in consumer protection and that was a continuation of that. The other case, there's more at stake. The pre-existing conditions now are something that Americans need protection from and want protection from and we're fighting for that in the case concerning health care.

Henderson: Mr. Attorney General, you have also signed onto a case about the U.S. Census, correct?

Miller: That's right.

Henderson: Republicans say that runs counter to the political interests of Iowa because you are on the side of those who say census takers should not be asking a question, are you a U.S. citizen? Advocates of this question say it will ensure that Iowa keeps all four of its congressional districts, if this question is not asked there will be more congressional districts in California and Texas and New York.

Miller: Yeah, this is a case that I thought long and hard about before I signed on. And what was incredibly important to me is the effect that it would have on immigrants, those that are citizens and those that are not. It was an enormously chilling effect on families to respond to the census and put them through something, an agony, a concern that we shouldn't have and defeats the purpose of the census. The census is designed to count everybody and I believe that we should treat everybody the same, that we're all equal. Too often we lose sight of that. So for me it was treatment of everybody equally. And there is some advantage for us if they're not counted in other states, but that is not an advantage that we should have, that is an unfair advantage. The whole system is based on everybody being counted and that is the way it should be. I think Iowa is in pretty good shape in terms of its four members of Congress. We have now over 3 million people, an average of 800,000, so I think that should sustain us.

Murphy: Attorney General Miller, getting back to this proposal, have you talked to the Governor about this? And do you have any sense of whether she plans to sign it into law?

Miller: We haven't had a chance to talk to the Governor about it and presumably she will have a considerable period of time to consider the appropriations bill. We will be talking to her. We may have some other attorney generals, republican attorney generals write her a letter. That is one of the things that we're discussing. And also here's sort of the context of this, this restriction on my bringing cases outside the state, no other state has this restriction. I would be the only attorney general. And my predecessors, at least I checked the code back to '75, it was roughly the same, I think it has been the same probably for 100 or 150 years. So you have all AG's in Iowa having this authority, all attorney generals in the rest of the country doing this, it gives you some idea of why this is so fundamental and so basic. And for me frankly when I was first an attorney general, which was a long, long time ago now, my elders then told me and everybody else about the powers and duties of the attorney general, how important they are, and how you have to protect those powers and that is what I'm trying to do, I'm trying to protect that power that everybody else had, that every other AG in Iowa had and so I feel sort of a special obligation to do that.

Murphy: Have you heard from any republican colleagues who might put their name on a piece of paper?

Miller: I have, yes.

Murphy: And if this does get signed into law, is this the kind of thing that you would pursue legal course against?

Miller: Well, that's premature. We would take a look at that later. Our major thrust would be to try and convince the Governor to veto it. There was somewhat similar but different legislation on the same sort of track in Michigan where the Governor did veto it, so there is a precedent for a republican Governor to veto something in this area.

Pitt: I'm interested in your working relationship with the republicans who have now control of the legislature and obviously with Governor Reynolds. How is your relationship with the republicans in government, state government now?

Miller: I think it's generally a good relationship, this obviously being an exception, a very significant and noteworthy exception. But I'm a person that feels when the election is over we should work together, we should make government work, particularly involving the law. The law is really a particular area where we should be less partisan. So we do work with the Governor's Office. She is the Chief Executive, we're the Chief Lawyer for the state. Her staff and Jeff Thompson and our people work really pretty closely together and talk about a lot of these different issues and work through them like I think the public expects us to do.

Henderson: Mr. Attorney General, the Governor this year has used a lot of her mandate from being elected to a full term to ask legislators to set the wheels in motion to change Iowa's Constitution and grant felons their voting rights back. Are you an advocate of that proposal? And do you think the legislature should, at the same time they decide this policy, also decide are there certain felons who should not get their voting rights back?

Miller: Well, I'm a strong supporter of her proposal, the Governor, Governor Reynolds' proposal on felons' opportunity to vote and I give her a lot of credit for standing up and taking that position. So we're willing, we want to help in any way. I wish the legislature would have acted this year and done a constitutional amendment. I think there are certain things that she can do in the interim to facilitate voting by felons because it's going to take a while even in the best of circumstances.

Henderson: So you're talking about an executive order?

Miller: Yeah, I think doing an executive order would make some sense, to do something like Governor Vilsack and Governor Culver did.

Henderson: When you look at what is happening in Florida where that state's voters did pass a constitutional amendment restoring felon voting rights and now Florida's legislator has been wrangling all year about which felons should be able to vote and under what circumstances. How does that inform your advice to legislators on what Iowa should do in this regard?

Miller: Well, I think we should let all felons vote once they have served their sentence and are back out in the population and in the community.

Henderson: Even if they haven't paid their restitution?

Miller: Even if they haven't paid their restitution. I want them to pay their restitution, we work on the restitution, that is part of our crime victims program to collect the restitution, but in some cases the restitution number would be far beyond what they are capable of doing. So voting is so basic in our society and so important. I think they should be able to vote and we should try and deal with restitution as best we can separately.

Henderson: You know there are some in your party running for President who say people in prison should be able to vote. Do you agree with that policy?

Miller: I do not. That is a step too far for me. I think once they have been released and they are out in the general population is the time they should be able to vote.

Murphy: Another issue that legislators are looking at, at the Capitol, are some changes to the way judges are ultimately seated on the benches here in Iowa by looking at the --

Miller: We stole the spotlight from that issue temporarily.

Murphy: That took the spotlight off of it. You're an attorney obviously here in Iowa. Do you vote in those, in the elections of those commission members?

Miller: I usually vote but maybe I should be more diligent and vote all the time, but I often vote and sort of enjoy doing that.

Murphy: So what do you think of the process as it stands now versus the changes that are being suggested, that they way that those commission members are selected by not having attorneys select those commission members but having elected representatives do that instead?

Miller: I think the current process is working very well. Look back over the history, when Governor Vilsack was Governor he was able to appoint I think some well qualified people that were democrats by and large. It didn't limit his choices and produced good choices. Now Governor Reynolds is in office and she has made two appointments that are republicans, that are good appointments. We're getting good judges. The Governor is not hamstrung by the commission in terms of the political selection of it. So I think it's working very well. And to make that process more political by giving the appointments to more public officials is not a good step, it's not the right way to go.

Murphy: I was just going to ask real quick, what about the argument republicans make that there's no accountability for those individuals, that the attorneys are on the commission now that are picking fellow attorneys to serve as judges whereas an elected representative can be held accountable to the voters? Is there a need for that layer in this?

Miller: I don't think so. And once the elected representatives appoint people they're in the same situation as those elected by the Bar, they are unaccounted sort of to the same extent. So I don't think that is a strong argument, and particularly in light of what I said before, that it's a system that produces good judges, produces candidates that give a governor a legitimate option to pick someone she or he would prefer.

Pitt: So you're the top lawyer in Iowa. Do you feel like you have given enough advice to state agencies regarding the proper conduct in the workplace on sexual harassment? The issues that have arisen in the last few years, do you feel like you've been active enough in guiding them through what they should be doing to kind of avoid these types of situations?

Miller: Well, we have sure tried with everybody else and there have been some situations that have been terrible, I acknowledge. But we've had to defend some of those cases, which have been very difficult, but we have always done our best, our whole idea is that we're lawyers, we follow the law, we try and do our best if we represent the client, the situation when it happens. We're willing and able to work with the administration on these issues as they train and advise people. So I think we have tried our best but recognize that there have been some situations that have been very bad.

Pitt: There's a feeling I think that David Jamison, who is the former head of the Iowa Finance Authority, should pay some of the claims himself. I think your office authorized the state to make those payments of several million dollars. Do you think there is a way to do that?

Miller: Well, that is something that we'll give serious consideration to sometime in the future. We have another case that we're working on. But we do have the authority to seek contribution from him and we'll consider that at the time.

Murphy: Speaking of things that move the spotlight from one issue to the other at the Capitol, very recently we have heard about a proposal that has been made that would basically prohibit government entities from allowing for sex reassignment surgery, public funds to be put towards those. A similar provision was just very recently here in March struck down by the courts, it went to the Iowa Supreme Court. I'm sure you haven't had a chance to see any of the details of this very new proposal yet but I guess I'm just curious from your legal perspective is there wiggle room from what that legislation that was just struck down to this one that could yield a different result?

Miller: Well, I hesitate to predict what the court will do on situations. But just by way of background, the Supreme Court held that the statutory law, the civil rights law, required these procedures to be covered. Now, the legislature since it is a statute potentially has the authority to override that. However, the Supreme Court held in abeyance because it wasn’t necessary the constitutional claim. So if they are successful in overriding the statute the constitutional claim would be before the court.

Henderson: Mr. Attorney General, a few minutes ago I mentioned this was your 10th term. You told me that this will be your last, you will not be running for re-election. Are you still sticking to that?

Miller: Well, you know, I said that last time and changed my mind but I think it's likely that this will be my last term. I just feel so lucky to be Attorney General of Iowa, that Iowans have given me the opportunity now ten times. It's a wonderful job. We get to use the law to serve the interests of ordinary Iowans. We have just a spectacular staff to work with. So I feel I've been very lucky to have this opportunity and very thankful to the Iowa voters. But this is probably the last term.

Henderson: Have you chosen a successor?

Miller: Not at this point, no.

Henderson: Will you be endorsing one?

Miller: I would imagine.

Murphy: Speaking of endorsing, how about in that presidential race? There's 20, 21 depending on how you count the field, candidates coming through our state here for the next 10 months or so. Do you plan on endorsing one of the democrats ahead of the caucuses?

Miller: I always do. For you folks and for people like me we're so lucky to have the first-in-the-nation caucus and I've always endorsed someone and worked for someone. A very good friend of mine is going to announce next month. His name is Steve Bullock, he's the Governor of Montana. He was Attorney General and Chief Deputy Attorney General before that. We've been friends for 12 years. And he has in my view just a very impressive package that he brings to the race. And when I say that, he's a man of just enormous integrity.

Murphy: So is that your endorsement?

Miller: It's not my endorsement. I've told him I won't endorse him until he announces, at least until he announces.

Murphy: But is that who you plan to endorse?

Miller: Well, stay tuned. He will be here on May 17th and 18th and see if I'm standing with him, that will be the test. But just to finish, he's got enormous personal qualities of integrity and doing the right thing. He is a very bright, able guy. He's got terrific judgment. He's sort of where I'm at ideologically which is sort of center left, sort of where Obama is, and he connects with people incredibly well.

Henderson: We would like to know where you will be at on caucus night. Do you intend to participate in an election night precinct caucus? Or will you participate in one of these virtual caucuses beforehand?

Miller: Oh, I love the caucus, the caucus itself. I love the dynamics and the people, particularly the Obama caucus in 2008. But all the others I enjoy them. So I will be there at my caucus.

Pitt: So your party has to field a candidate to run against Joni Ernst for the U.S. Senate. How do you think that should go? It's going to be obviously competitive congressional races. Do you go for it and try to find somebody and aggressively pursue it?

Miller: Well, I think we have to find a good candidate for the Senate to run against Senator Ernst. And some people have been talking about that and looking at it. So I think we need to make a race of that and find the best candidate and see how we do.

Henderson: You're very familiar with a candidate named Rob Sand, he used to work in your office, now he is the State Auditor. Are you encouraging him to run?

Miller: He hasn't asked me and I haven't encouraged him. I don't think he's headed in that direction. But obviously I think your implication is that he has got a future in Iowa politics, and if that is your implication you're exactly right. I agree with that. He's a very talented auditor and was, did a great job in the Attorney General's Office.

Henderson: In terms of your legacy, if you could in the last half minute of the program, explain some sort of law change that you have sought that has really impacted the lives of Iowans.

Miller: I think in terms of law changes, some of the work I've done on sentencing reform. But I would view my legacy in two areas. One is what I've been able to do on tobacco and smoking, the Microsoft case and mortgage foreclosure, that those were very big cases with enormous consequences for Iowa, that it embodies the principle of using the law to serve the interest of ordinary Iowans. And then the other thing is that I've run a professional office. I've always believed that you hire good lawyers with a lot of integrity and you follow the law and you do the right thing. I hope that package will by my legacy.

Henderson: I have to follow the clock and we have no more time for this conversation today. Thanks for joining us, Mr. Attorney General. And thank you for joining us as well. Join us again next week at our regular times, 7:30 on Friday night and Sunday at Noon. For all of us here at Iowa PBS today, thanks for watching.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.    

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