Rob McKenna knows well the ways and means of politics, making the Republican attorney general one of the state’s best practitioners.
He understands seizing opportunities for political reward and sidestepping those carrying potential risk.
Press releases touting legal victories and task forces combating the latest flavor of crime are routine creations on his watch. No announcement came when an assistant attorney general resigned last week before authorities charged him with harassing a neighbor.
McKenna, who won a second term last November, is already out raising cash for a future campaign, possibly for higher office.
Given those talents and aspirations, his absence from a federal courtroom in Tacoma on Wednesday was very noticeable.
Arguably, neither he nor any of his subordinates needed to be present when a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order barring the state from releasing names and addresses of those who signed Referendum 71 petitions. That measure aims to let voters decide whether to repeal a new law giving same-sex domestic partners nearly all the same rights as married couples.
McKenna’s office had notice of the hearing but didn’t receive the 500 pages of legal documents filed in support of the order by Protect Marriage Washington until a couple hours before it started.
The proceeding lasted 15 minutes, ending as most of these usually do with the judge granting the order because the requester put forth an argument with a modicum of legal reasoning.
With no time to prepare a counterargument and knowing the conclusion was likely foregone, the Attorney General’s Office opted to keep everyone home.
“You can understand it doesn’t make a lot of sense to drive 40 minutes from Olympia to Tacoma when you do not have any working knowledge of what you are talking about because you haven’t had time to read what they filed,” department spokesman Dan Sytman said.
Many lawyers might find themselves responding the same way in a similar situation.
But McKenna is not part of that “many lawyers” club. He is in his own fraternity viewed by the world through a different lens, one which finds meaning in any action, or lack of it.
When no one showed up to defend the state law Wednesday, eight people watching and three reporters covering the hearing noticed.
U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle did, too, citing the “Defendants’ failure to appear or otherwise object to Plaintiffs’ motion” in his written decision.
McKenna, who is blessed with a team of skilled attorneys, could have dispatched one of them to strike a pose of authority and argue the obvious — the state had not had time to read the complaint having gotten its hands on it that day.
Undoubtedly there’s value in establishing such a visual balance in the courtroom and pledging vigorous defense of the state’s interests at a future hearing.
Staying away may carry less political cost for McKenna.
Though a cornerstone of his political foundation is bringing sunshine to government decisions and making its records accessible, doing so in this case is problematic.
The public record he must argue deserves release is a list of names of 138,000 people associated with one of the core groups of the Republican Party.
They are predominantly church-going social conservatives, a political force McKenna will want on his side if he should ever seek the governor’s office.
Signers of the referendum won’t forget and may not forgive the attorney general if his office has their identities posted on the Internet for the world to read.
McKenna can’t be blamed for wishing at this point to see the referendum fail to qualify or the legal duel conclude after the election.
In either case, the spotlight on publishing the names would dim and attention shifted to watching lawyers argue about preserving the public records law.
That’s a battle McKenna can fight knowing there’s political reward and a press release to be had.
Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or firstname.lastname@example.org.