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A new committee of lawyers, led by two former Idaho attorneys general, has formed to "protect and preserve the Idaho Constitution" from "repeated attacks by the Idaho Legislature," and announced plans to "blow the whistle on legislation that threatens the integrity of the Idaho Constitution and to use every legal avenue to oppose it,” including challenging it in court.

Former Idaho Attorney General Jim Jones, who also is a former chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, said, “Legislators have shown an alarming disrespect for our State Constitution this session and it is incumbent upon members of the legal profession to call them to account.” The group pointed in particular to SB 1110, the bill to make it much harder to qualify an initiative or referendum for the Idaho ballot -- a right guaranteed to Idahoans in the state Constitution -- several bills seeking to undermine the Idaho Attorney General's role in providing legal advice to state agencies, despite constitutional requirements for the Attorney General to fill that role; and emergency powers bills seeking to give the legislative branch more power in emergencies at the expense of the executive branch. 

In addition to Jones, the new group's founding members include former Idaho Attorney General Tony Park, former Deputy Attorney General Clive Strong, and long-time private attorney Bruce Smith. Here is the group's full announcement:

"The Idaho Constitution is under attack...from Idaho legislators.

A group of Idaho lawyers has formed to protect the Idaho Constitution from repeated attacks by the Idaho Legislature. Former Idaho Attorney General Jim Jones said today that the group, the Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution, will engage in a variety of activities to prevent the Legislature from subverting constitutional rights of the people, as well as constitutional checks and balances.

“Legislators have shown an alarming disrespect for our State Constitution this session and it is incumbent upon members of the legal profession to call them to account,” Jones said. “The mission of our group is to blow the whistle on legislation that threatens the integrity of the Idaho Constitution and to use every legal avenue to oppose it.”

“We can’t and won’t stand idly by while the Legislature tries to deconstruct the remarkable Constitution that the Constitutional Convention delegates carefully crafted back in 1889 to guide our State into the future. It is fitting and appropriate that we announce our defense of this treasured document during the same week that Idahoans celebrate Idaho Day on March 4.”

“Senate Bill 1110 would make it almost impossible for the people to put an initiative or referendum on the election ballot. The bill is a direct attack on the bedrock principle of our Constitution--the right of the people to control their government. Article One states that the people, “have the right to alter, reform or abolish” the State government “whenever they may deem it necessary.” The Legislature would effectively take that right away from the people, if it passes Senate Bill 1110.”

Several bills would infringe on the Attorney General’s constitutional power to handle the legal business of State agencies. When Idaho’s Constitution was being fashioned in 1889, the delegates clearly understood and agreed that the Attorney General would be the sole source of legal services for the State. Two bills, Senate Bill 1090 and House Bill 118, would prohibit the Attorney General from representing the Idaho Department of Lands. House Bill 101 would allow State agencies to hire their own attorneys. “These bills are unconstitutional, as the Attorney General has advised the Legislature, but that advice has been rejected.”

House Bill 135 proposes to limit the Governor’s ability to respond to an emergency or disaster. The Attorney General has advised that some provisions are not constitutionally permissible, but the bill passed the House anyway.

“It is difficult to understand why legislators completely disregard sound advice from our elected Attorney General and persist in attacking the constitutional framework of our government. They have done so in a number of instances in the past, causing the State to pay millions of dollars to attorneys who have successfully challenged unconstitutional legislation enacted by the Legislature.”

The Legislature established the Constitutional Defense Fund in 1995 to defend the State’s sovereignty, which has included defending legislation that offends the U.S. Constitution. Thus far, the State has paid out over $3 million to attorneys who have successfully challenged the constitutionality of State laws, many of which were enacted despite warnings from Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

“The Legislature’s Constitutional Defense Fund has primarily paid out funds to groups challenging Idaho laws in federal court for violation of the U.S. Constitution, but we intend to focus on protecting our State Constitution in State courts. If those actions are successful, we will seek fees from the Constitutional Defense Fund.”

Founding members of the Committee include former Idaho Attorney General Tony Park, former Deputy Attorney General Clive Strong, and long-time private practitioner, Bruce Smith, a senior lawyer of the Idaho Bar.

Park said, “In the coming days, we will be gathering legal talent from around the State to protect Idaho’s constitutional form of government. There is a good deal of concern in the legal community about the impact of these unconstitutional measures on the integrity of our government. If litigation becomes necessary, we intend to rely on volunteer lawyers who will donate their services to the benefit of the Constitution.”

Strong noted, “The Office of Idaho Attorney General serves an essential role in ensuring elected officials are given the legal advice they need to hear, not what they want to hear. The importance of preserving the role of the Attorney General is evident from constitutionally suspect legislation pending in the Idaho Legislature.”

Smith expressed concern that the bills designed to usurp the Attorney General’s constitutional powers are not only violative of the separation of powers, but would dramatically increase the State’s outlays for legal services. “The sponsors of House Bill 118 could not even estimate how high the cost would go.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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