After running unopposed four years ago, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, seeks a third term leading what he calls the state’s largest law firm, with more than 500 attorneys and another 600 other employees in 27 divisions in 12 cities across the state.
Challenged by three Republicans in this summer’s primary, Ferguson now faces Woodinville attorney Matt Larkin in the general election.
Ferguson and his office have gained a higher profile during his second term, as a lead attorney general for an expansive lawsuit against opioid makers and distributors, among other civil actions, but also because of scores of lawsuits that he and fellow attorneys general from other states have filed during the nearly four years of the Trump administration, challenging executive orders and other policy decisions.
Larkin isn’t faulting his opponent over his work ethic but rather because he believes Ferguson is “focused on the wrong stuff,” he said during a joint interview with The Herald Editorial Board on Sept. 21. “I’d be an attorney general focused on cleaning up our streets, upholding the law and making our communities safer.”
In making that case, Larkin points to what he says has been a rise in violent crime and a sense of a lack of safety among business owners and state residents. Larkin said he wants to expand the number of the agency’s prosecutors to assist county and municipal prosecutors to resolve more criminal cases.
But Larkin may be overstating the problem and showing some lack of understanding about the role of the attorney general’s office regarding crime. While total numbers of violent crimes have increased over the last eight years, Ferguson said, so has the state’s population; the rate of violent crime, the attorney general said, has not increased since he took office, according to data from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. And while the AG’s office assists county prosecutors when its help is requested in felony cases, tasking state attorneys with misdemeanor cases in municipal courts would be a questionable use of a state resource, he said.
Criminal justice is a focus for the office, Ferguson said; he’s advanced work to end the backlog on rape test kits and sought successful legislation that increased penalties for human traffickers and repeat drunken drivers. Ferguson also has worked to reduce fatalities from firearms, seeking legislation to ban high-capacity magazines and assault weapons.
Larkin also is critical of the number of lawsuits the AG’s office has filed against the Trump administration. Comparing such actions during the last term of the Obama administration to Trump’s term might raise eyebrows: Ferguson sued the Obama administration twice in his first term, both times over delays in the cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation. But starting just days after Trump’s inauguration, the state AG’s office has filed 34 lawsuits against the Trump administration as lead agency and has joined 46 other lawsuits filed by other attorneys general.
Ferguson defends those suits as necessary to protect the interests of the state and its residents, and has only filed or joined lawsuits where there’s been a clear potential for harm.
So far, the courts have backed Ferguson’s judgment on that necessity and its standing to sue. While many cases remain unresolved, of the 80 cases filed against the administration, Ferguson and other state AGs have notched 35 legal victories, 13 of which have or could be appealed. Only in one case, regarding eligibility for law enforcement grants, did a U.S. District Court find for the administration. That case is on appeal.
Among the cases over which Ferguson and other states’ AGs have filed challenges are the administration’s ban of travelers from majority Muslim countries, issues related to the environment and pollution standards, the Freedom of Information Act, addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the status of “Dreamers” under the DACA policy, 3-D printed firearms, contraceptive access, health insurance, the planned expansion of “Growler” jets at Naval Air Station Whidbey, the separation of immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, and most recently a challenge to U.S. Postal Service cuts to employee overtime and dismantling of mail-sorting equipment in the run-up to the election.
Ferguson’s office has been as busy regarding issues of consumer protection and public health, winning civil decisions and settlements against Monsanto over PCB contamination, Comcast over improper charges, Johnson & Johnson over risks from a medical implant and Twitter for campaign finance violations. The state AG also has been a leader in the lawsuit against opioid distributors, with a trial scheduled to begin next spring unless a settlement is reached.
Decisions and settlements in those civil cases have resulted in more than $650 million in payments for damages, returning more than half of that amount to state residents and $100 million to the state’s general fund. The balance is used to support the work of the office, Ferguson has said previously.
Ferguson has also created an environmental protection division within the AG’s office, which since its creation in 2013 has led to more than 30 criminal convictions and the payment of $5 million in fines, penalties and restitution.
One final comparison of Larkin’s and Ferguson’s law school and work resumes is necessary: Both men, as should be expected, are law school graduates. Larkin earned his law degree from Gonzaga and a masters of law from George Washington University. Ferguson earned his law degree at New York University, clerked for two federal judges and worked as an attorney for a Seattle law firm before serving on the King County Council for two terms.
Larkin, on his campaign website, says he has “worked as a Prosecutor for Pierce County and a Rule 9 Prosecuting Extern in Spokane County.”
But during the editorial board interview, Larkin, who currently provides legal counsel to his family’s manufacturing business in Bothell, admitted — after some cross-examination from Ferguson — that his tenure with Pierce County as a deputy prosecutor lasted only a couple of months and his work as an extern was performed as a law student and under supervision of an attorney.
Ferguson’s record as attorney general, of course, has benefited from the work of the “partners and associates” in the state’s law firm, but the attorney general is the person responsible for leading that practice and establishing its priorities. In that role, Ferguson has served the legal needs of the state well and warrants a third term in office.