URBANDALE — Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is stepping up his criticism of Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller in the wake of the Democrat’s controversial legal opinion on powers of the governor’s successor, telling a conservative group Wednesday that voters should oust the attorney general.
Branstad insisted Miller was “absolutely wrong” when on May 1 he reversed a position he took in December by issuing a formal opinion that Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds will be governor once Branstad resigns to accept an ambassadorship but would not have the constitutional authority to appoint a new lieutenant governor.
In his decision, Miller cited past elected executive successions at the state and national level to bolster his position that Reynolds would serve in both capacities as governor and lieutenant governor until the next election.
Branstad called Miller’s opinion “convoluted” on his Tuesday evening radio call-in show because he said it flies in the face of a 2009 state law that spells out the procedure for a sitting governor to name a lieutenant when the post is vacant, and noted two situations in Utah and New York where such action was taken and upheld by the courts.
“I think this is a very cynical effort to try to create controversy. I think it’s absolutely wrong. I think the people of Iowa recognize that we need to have an attorney general that will represent the people of Iowa and not his own partisan viewpoint or that of his staff,” Branstad told members of the Westside Conservative Club Wednesday morning.
Asked by one attendee why he does fire Miller, the governor said: “We can’t fire the attorney general. He’s elected separately. You can. I can’t. There’s an election coming up in 2018. He has been the attorney general since 1978 with the exception of four years of Bonnie Campbell. I think it’s time for a new attorney general. So let’s vote a new attorney general that will represent Iowa and the people of Iowa’s interest.”
The attorney general’s office is representing the state in a court challenge to the new 72-hour waiting period for abortions performed in Iowa that Branstad signed last week. But Miller has cited a conflict in declining to represent the state in a union challenge to a rewrite of Iowa’s collective bargaining law for public employees.
By issuing the opinion on succession, Miller will have to recuse himself if Reynolds chooses to appoint a lieutenant once she is sworn in as Branstad’s successor and if she is challenged in court, the governor said.
“So it’s just a way to kind of mess the whole process up and create confusion, and I think it’s one of the worst partisan things he’s ever done,” Branstad said.
Reynolds last week said she is evaluating the succession question but noted Miller’s change of position has cast a cloud over the issue.
“We believe the law is on our side,” she said in an interview. “Attorney General Miller, my attorney, gave us that advice in December and I’ve moved forward anticipating. In light of the reversal of his opinion, we’re sitting down with a team and we’re evaluating how we move forward.”
No decisions will be made until Branstad clears the U.S. Senate confirmation process, likely this month, to become President Donald Trump’s choice to be ambassador to China.
In a brief response Wednesday to the governor’s comments, Miller defended his opinion, saying “despite all the rhetoric, this thoroughly researched opinion is based on the law and not politics. It’s up to Iowans to make that judgment.
“The opinion is based on constitutional provisions concerning succession order, which provide that, upon a governor’s resignation, the office goes from governor to lieutenant governor, to president of the Senate, and then to the speaker of the House. To insert a replacement lieutenant governor would require changing that constitutional provision,” he noted.