"Most AGs don't go to court.."
Holly Benson on Saturday, July 31st, 2010 in a debate.
Holly Benson claims most AGs don't go to court
The three Republican candidates for attorney general are all trying to distinguish their records based on their resumes. Holly Benson, whose last job was the head of a state agency, downplayed courtroom experience in a recent debate.
After one of her opponents, former prosecutor Pam Bondi, touted her own courtroom experience, Benson tried to portray logging hours in the courtroom as something that isn't necessary for an AG. Instead, Benson highlighted her own administrative experience overseeing the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation and then the state Agency for Health Care Administration.
"Yesterday I was talking to somebody from General McCollum's team who said 'I think the last time he was in court was the late '70s,' '' Benson said. "So most AGs don't go to court and it's not a primary requirement of the job."
That wasn't intended as a swipe at Attorney General Bill McCollum -- a fellow Republican who is now running for governor. Instead, Benson was trying to suggest that Bondi's courtroom experience isn't essential to the AG position.
But we wanted to check to see if Benson is right: do most AGs stay out of court?
We delved into the backgrounds of Florida's three most recent AGs.
Florida's current AG, McCollum, was elected to the job in 2006. AG spokeswoman Ryan Wiggins said McCollum hasn't been in the courtroom while AG. AG spokeswoman Sandi Copes declined to comment on whether the amount of courtroom experience matters for an AG.
She said she found no information that showed that McCollum's predecessor Charlie Crist was in court either while he held that post between 2002 and 2006. But Crist's spokesman in the governor's office, Sterling Ivey, said that Crist was in the courtroom while he was AG on a telecom case. He referred us to Chris Kise, then the solicitor general.
In Crist vs. Jaber, the case involved a challenge to a $350 million rate hike that the Public Service Commission had approved for Florida telecoms, Kise told us in an e-mail. The AG's office argued that the PSC did not follow the statutory mandate because the rates would not remain affordable. Crist argued the case before the Florida Supreme Court along with Deputy Solicitor General Lynn Hearn. Kise said he personally prepared Crist for the oral argument and "he actually stood up and argued part of the case."
We asked Kise his thoughts on AGs and courtroom experience. He said it helps to have a "substantial legal background whether it be trial work or otherwise what I would call real lawyer background. It's an advantage because you understand more about the legal system and the challenges in representing clients. It provides a perspective. Is it essential? I guess its not essential."
We also spoke to Bob Butterworth who served as AG between 1987 and 2002. He guessed that he was in the courtroom about 25 times.
"Many times I sat second chair for a couple of hearings or Supreme Court arguments, but I never handled (the case) myself because it took two, three solid weeks to get prepared," Butterworth said. "It's very hard as the AG of a large state to do that. A number of AGs do it, but relatively few."
Butterworth said though he never handled a jury trial as AG he did handle other matters: "I handled motions. I would also handle a number of settlements that had to be approved by the court such as (the landmark tobacco lawsuit) where Gov. Lawton Chiles and I both represented to a court why we wanted to accept a settlement."
Butterworth did not see extensive courtroom experience as essential to the job.
"Your job is primarily administration, basically being up front in the agency," he said. "I do not see it as a negative for any person running for the office of AG to not have argued cases."
To get a nationwide perspective on how often AGs go to court we spoke with Patrick Lynch, the attorney general of Rhode Island for about eight years and a past president of the National Association of Attorneys General. As AG, Lynch also handles criminal cases but we focused our discussion on his role that relates to more typical AG work. Lynch said it's more common to see a district attorney try cases than an AG.
Generally speaking, Lynch said AGs are seen in court when their office has a case before the U.S. Supreme Court or a higher court. But "in the everyday drudgery of trying cases, going in front of the bar is more rare than not. It's too time consuming. You have too many other responsibilities."
Lynch said that he will sometimes make appearances in court to show support for his attorneys -- for example he was in the courtroom for arguments in a high-profile lawsuit involving companies that manufactured lead paint but did not deliver these arguments himself. But Lynch could not recall himself delivering the opening or closing arguments or making an oral argument himself in court as the AG.
Since we're on the topic of experience, we asked all three Republican AG campaigns about their candidate's recent time in the courtroom.
Bondi worked for the state attorney's office in Hillsborough County for 18 years until she resigned in December to run for office, said Brett Doster, a campaign spokesman. She was in the courtroom throughout her tenure, he said. "Two of her cases are on death row right now," said Doster, who said Bondi also handled "any criminal issue you can imagine."
Kottkamp, elected as Gov. Crist's lieutenant governor in 2006, "did extensive trial and appeals work" before he held his current position, according to campaign spokesman David Bishop. The last case he could recall in the courtroom was in 2005.
"It was while he was with the law firm Henderson, Franklin, Starnes & Holt. He represented Publix Super Markets. Case was in Florida 2nd DCA,'' Bishop wrote.
And now Benson.
Benson's campaign said that since she was a transactional lawyer -- a term that refers to business deals -- most of her legal experience was outside of the courtroom. She was the secretary for DBPR in 2007 and 2008 and secretary for AHCA 2008-2009. Before those administrative positions, she was a state representative between 2000 and 2007.
Benson worked as a municipal bond lawyer from 1996-2007 "and while she occasionally had bond validation hearings in front of judges, she did not routinely appear in court," Bridges said in an e-mail.
"The main role for AG is to actually manage and run an agency -- not to try cases on a regular basis," Bridges said in an interview.
So where does that leave us?
Benson said that "most AGs don't appear in court." McCollum's AG office says he hasn't appeared in court and had no record of Crist appearing in court although we were able to find an example of a case in which Crist did appear. Butterworth said he might have gone to court 25 times in 16 years -- so less than twice a year. By looking at the three most recent examples in Florida, AGs rarely go to court -- but it does happen. So we give Benson a Mostly True.