Idaho lawmaker drops hire-different-lawyers bill

BOISE - North Idaho Rep. Vito Barbieri has withdrawn HB 278, his bill to have the Legislature set up its own “Office of Legislative Counsel” rather than seek advice from the Idaho Attorney General.

“After yesterday’s hearing, realizing how pressed State Affairs is to try to get done here, and after the questions that I received, I just withdrew the bill,” Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, said this morning. “I just thought discussion needs to be a little more in-depth. … There’s some educating that needs to go on here.”

Barbieri said he hopes to bring the bill back next year; it sought to cut positions and funding from the Attorney General’s office to set up the new two-lawyer legislative legal office.

Barbieri, a freshman lawmaker and a lawyer who is not licensed to practice in Idaho - only in California - said he thinks it’s inappropriate for the Legislature to get legal opinions from the elected Attorney General, because he’s part of the executive branch. He’s also taken issue with the advisory opinion issued by Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office this year that his bill seeking to nullify the federal health-care reform law violated both the U.S. and Idaho constitutions and lawmakers’ oath of office; the bill passed the House anyway, but was killed in a Senate committee.

Committee members had plenty of questions during a hearing on the bill on Tuesday. Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, asked if Barbieri’s bill set the stage for both the House and Senate to say they wanted their own lawyers, and the minority and majority too. “Couldn’t everybody just stand up and say, ‘Well, I want my own attorney that will say what I want them to say?’”

Barbieri responded, “The Legislature already has the power to hire its own attorneys, so this is not adding a new power or a new policy.” Given that response, Higgins and other committee members questioned why the bill was needed.

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, a lawyer, questioned how the new two-lawyer office would compare to the broad array of legal expertise the attorney general’s staff has now, on topics ranging from public utilities to natural resources to Medicaid. Barbieri said, “That is certainly a point well taken,” but said he thought “two attorneys should be sufficient.”

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, questioned what would happen when an attorney hired by the Legislature had a different opinion than the state’s elected attorney general. “What if they’re in conflict and it is a constitutional question? Who rules? Who decides?” he asked. “That is precisely the point, Rep. Henderson, is that you decide,” Barbieri responded. “The Legislature will make that determination.”

He said Wednesday, “I think it is an issue that is more serious than it’s being made out to be, but it’s not so crucial in terms of time. … I think once they recognize the freedom of having their own counsel, they’ll see that the conflict is serious.”

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, told the House State Affairs Committee this morning that he “spent considerable amount of time last night” working on his arguments against the bill, which was scheduled for a debate and vote in the committee this morning, “so Rep. Barbieri already wasted my time.”

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