OPINION: Alaska's attorneys general weren't always so eager to be culture warriors

The Anchorage Daily News recently published two commentaries on its opinion page critical of Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor. The editorial board took Taylor to task for his focus on intimidating librarians for allowing access to books with graphic content while failing adequately to investigate violence against women in both rural and urban Alaska. Then former Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth charged that Taylor is misinterpreting state law on parental notification for students when human reproduction is addressed.

In both these instances, Taylor appears as a culture warrior, rushing into highly partisan battle on behalf of Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Stretching the law, or ignoring it, is not the AG’s job. Providing competent and transparent counsel within the law and the constitution is what the job is about.

Taylor has also come under criticism for ruling that the state will pay attorney fees for high state officials charged with state ethics violations. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Matt Claman noted that this could inappropriately involve the AG, basically covering for high officials.

Two of Dunleavy’s other AG appointments ran into more serious trouble. Ed Sniffen resigned as the ADN and Pro Publica were preparing a story on Nikki Dougherty White’s allegation that Sniffen had an illegal sexual affair with her when he was coach of West High’s mock trial team. A Superior Court judge dismissed a grand jury indictment on the grounds that the statute of limitations was different when the affair occurred than when White made her allegation. And Sniffen’s predecessor in the office, Kevin Clarkson, resigned after the ADN and Pro Publica reported that he sent scores of inappropriate, sexually suggestive texts to a junior state employee.

It’s a far cry from the model of what the AG’s office should be, set by Alaska first generation of attorneys general — people mostly unknown to today’s practitioners. The first, John Rader, ran an office characterized by the highest integrity, transparency and competence, guiding the Legislature through formulation of the state’s administrative and commercial codes, as well as helping establish the state’s court system. George Hayes had a reputation for unflinching integrity and principled competence. He began the rationalization of chaotic record-keeping left from territorial days.

Perhaps the most significant model of them all was John Havelock, appointed by Gov. Bill Egan in December 1970. Havelock was unusually capable and unimpeachably principled. He tackled corporate and banking corruption, and began the work of extending state justice in Native villages. But his greatest contribution was in opening cooperative, forward-directed negotiation with Native leaders on settling Alaska Native land claims. Egan’s predecessor, Walter Hickel, worried that extensive Native land titles would cripple the state’s resource development, did not endorse extensive Native claims.

At Egan’s behest, Havelock emphasized cooperation and sought mutual interest. Native leaders said of Havelock that they’d never enjoyed his kind of consensus-building and openness with state government before. It had much to do with producing a successful Native land claims bill in Congress in December 1971.


There were subsequent standout AGs. Avrum Gross, also unusually capable, defended the state’s election process when Hickel charged that a gubernatorial primary election was tainted, and was upheld by Superior Court Judge Russell Moody. Gross showed the state Supreme Court that such mistakes as may have been made had not affected the election outcome. Wilson Condon brought meticulous record-keeping and an effective division of labor to the Department of Law. He insisted that the department is the state’s law firm, not the governor’s.

When Hickel was elected in 1990, his legal advisor Edgar Paul Boyko sent to Juneau a list of assistant attorneys general to be fired for being too lax. Hickel’s AG, Charles Cole, another unusually capable lawyer, asked them all for a detailed job description, which he promptly filed in a bottom drawer, not to be acted on. When the governor’s chief of staff began to tell him how to do his job, Cole resigned.

He was replaced by Bruce Botelho, who counseled Hickel on how to handle his personal investments so as to avoid conflict of interest. Botelho served Hickel, a Republican, and then Tony Knowles, a Democrat, with exceptional competence and impeccable integrity.

A number of AGs since Botelho have been a great departure from these earlier models. Integrity and transparency were hallmarks of the work of early attorneys general, as well as a steadfast dedication to the state’s interest first and foremost, eschewing partisanship. A review of their principles and contributions would serve our current officials well.

Steve Haycox is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage. For more discussion of the work of attorneys general from Rader to Botelho, see Haycox’s 1998 book “The Law of the Land: A History of the Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Law in Alaska.”

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Steve Haycox

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.