Very likely, Attorney General Sam Olens has decided he would rather be right than governor. And we all may be better off as a result.
On Monday, Gov. Nathan Deal retreated from what, in all likelihood, was one of the most popular decisions of his administration – an executive order barring all state assistance to Syrian refugees settled here. A Southern Baptist church in Marietta picked up the slack and took in hand the one Syrian family sent our way last month.
As did many other Republican governors, Deal issued his directive in the aftermath of the November terrorist attacks in Paris and reports that at least one attacker had entered Europe as a refugee from ISIS-torn Syria.
But three days ago, the governor rescinded his order “based on the official opinion” issued by Olens. The attorney general told Deal that he lacked any legal peg upon which he might hang his hat.
Never mind that the federal government is in charge of immigration policy. Never mind that Georgia had signed an agreement with this same federal government promising to provide aid to refugees sent the state’s way.
“I am unaware of any law or agreement that would permit a state to carve out refugees from particular countries from participation in the refugee resettlement program,” Olens wrote, “no matter how well-intended or justified the desire to carve out such refugees might be.”
The decision was legally proper and morally on point. But politically, Olens has just placed a tall, tall hurdle between himself and a 2018 Republican nomination for governor. The height of that barrier will become more obvious in the weeks ahead, as the GOP presidential contest turns our way.
The two frontrunners in Georgia, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have gotten there in large part by welding together the issues of Islamist terrorism and immigration. The strength of such talking points are unlikely to ebb before the next election cycle, when a small army of Republicans will attempt to replace Nathan Deal.
One presumes that all parties walked into this little vignette with eyes wide open.
Shortly after he issued his executive order, Governor Deal probably realized he overstepped a boundary or two. Don’t be alarmed. It happens more often than you think. This is why courts of law exist. Judges make outstanding foils when the popular diverges with the legal, allowing governors (and often Legislatures) to shake their heads and say they tried.
But then Sam Olens raised his hand. Early in December, the attorney general sent Deal staffers a note, informing them that their boss was on shaky legal ground. As a fall guy, an attorney general is just as good as a judge.
The Deal administration asked Olens for a formal, public opinion. And Olens chose to respond.
The Republican attorney general has carried much ideological water for his party, participating in lawsuit after lawsuit aimed at the Obama administration. Olens has labored against the Affordable Care Act and new climate change regulations. He joined a 17-state legal challenge to President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
Olens could have sided with Deal on the Syrian refugee issue and let a judge take the blame. But that was a bucket too far.
By coincidence, Georgia Trend magazine put Olens on this month’s cover. Toward the end of the accompanying article, the attorney general addresses 2018 with – if not ambivalence, then a high degree of flexibility.
“I do not have a plan. I may run for re-election. I may run for another office. I may not run at all. I honestly don’t know,” Olens is quoted as saying.
Those aren’t the words of a man running for governor. But as we said at the beginning, this could be a good thing for you and me. In a one-party state, an independent-minded attorney general can serve an invaluable check on both the executive and legislative branches.
Arthur Bolton and Mike Bowers served as counterweights to power during Democratic rule. A third term as attorney general for Olens could allow him to play the same role – opposite a fresh-faced new governor.
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