The first GOP attorney general in 50 years could transform the office, help corporate sector

Schultz seeks to oust Ellison over crime despite office’s limited role in crime fighting

By: - October 20, 2022 6:00 am

Attorney General Keith Ellison (left) is running for re-election against Republican challenger Jim Schultz (right). Courtesy photos.

Minnesotans could easily be under the mistaken assumption that Republican candidate for attorney general Jim Schultz is running to be sheriff. 

He has touted endorsements from sheriffs across the state. He’s attacked Keith Ellison for being soft on crime, citing the DFL attorney general’s endorsement of a 2021 Minneapolis ballot initiative that would have dismantled the police department and replaced it with a new public safety agency. Schultz frequently cites the rise in violent crime, especially in Minneapolis, and blames Ellison. 

Schultz, a former investment lawyer with no experience as a courtroom litigator, is banking on Minnesotans being unfamiliar with the duties and role of the Office of Minnesota Attorney General. 

Unlike the United States attorney general, who oversees the FBI and other key law enforcement agencies, the Minnesota attorney general is the state’s chief legal officer, but has no role in the prosecution of the vast majority of crimes. County and city attorneys prosecute the vast majority of crime, though the attorney general can help a county attorney upon request. 

As the state’s top lawyer, the attorney general defends state laws and agencies. The Minnesota attorney general is also a key bulwark against consumer and nonprofit fraud. 

And, in recent years, attorneys general have become important players in the nation’s most contentious battles over social issues and the role of government, from abortion to Obamacare. Republican AGs have sued Democratic administrations, while Democrats sued the Trump administration in turn.

So, even if Schultz will have little effect on the criminal justice issues he mostly talks about, he would likely transform the office.

Here are some key ways the first Minnesota Republican attorney general in more than half a century could change the course of the North Star State: 

Consumer protection

In his first term, Ellison aggressively advanced progressive goals and rose the office to new prominence. He sued oil companies, alleging they deceived the public on global warming. 

Schultz has said he would reallocate resources from other divisions to beef up the three-person criminal division and accused Ellison of spending too much time on lawsuits that “extract a lot of money from businesses,” according to Axios.

Schultz’s comments about dialing back corporate fraud litigation were revealing about the choice Minnesotans face in the race. 

In addition to the oil companies, Ellison has sued  opioid companies for their role in the epidemic; Fleet Farm for selling guns to straw buyers; COVID-19 testing companies for flawed performance; and solar-power sales companies he said were scamming people. 

Schultz, by contrast, comes from the world of corporate law firms. He worked for Dorsey & Whitney, which has represented medical device giant Medtronic, UnitedHealth and U.S. Bank. Prior to that, he worked for Kirkland & Ellis, the world’s largest law firm, whose chairman recently bemoaned its reputation as a den of wolves, where sharp-elbowed lawyers work grueling hours while looking out for their own good.  

Kirkland was the top legal adviser on private equity deals in 2021, according to Bloomberg.

The firm has represented tobacco companies, pharmaceutical companies and oil companies such as BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

It’s unclear what Schultz worked on during his time at the firms, but he appears to have no regrets. He recently called the two firms, “two of the most prestigious law firms in the world.”

Before running for attorney general, Schultz worked as a lawyer for Värde Partners, an investment management firm that invested in oil and gas assets. He focused on purchase negotiations from 2017 until he left in December.

The company invested in oil and gas after crude oil prices plunged in 2015, with a 2016 purchase of oil and gas assets in the STACK oil play in Oklahoma and the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas.

Värde Partners also loaned $500 million to a major corporate landlord company called American Homes 4 Rent, which has over 57,000 single-family home rentals in 22 states, according to a June investor presentation.

These kinds of companies have been criticized for monopolizing markets and driving up the price of homes.

Ellison, by contrast, sued one of the state’s largest private landlords, HavenBrook Homes, for failing to maintain its properties and trying to evict tenants during the state’s eviction moratorium.

Given his background, his corporate allies and his public comments, voters can surmise that Schultz would be friendlier to the private sector than Ellison and DFL attorneys general before him. 

Ellison filed a lawsuit against large fossil fuel companies, claiming they deceived people about their role in climate change.

Schultz has called the lawsuit frivolous, doomed to fail and business harassment. 

“There’s extraordinarily little evidence that they, in fact, you know, deceive, things like that,” he said at a Star Tribune State Fair forum. 

Ellison responded sharply during a recent Rochester campaign stop: “Does it have anything to do with the fact that as a union-busting hedge fund lawyer that he is connected to the oil interests?” 

The state’s lawyer 

The state’s chief legal officer represents Minnesota statutes and state agencies in a vast and diverse array of litigation, which can have major policy implications. 

Although Ellison supports abortion rights, as attorney general he was obligated to defend Minnesota laws that placed some restrictions and regulations on abortion health care, including parental notification, mandated physician care and informed consent.

When a Ramsey County judge ruled with the plaintiffs and overturned Minnesota’s abortion restrictions, Ellison opted not to appeal.

Schultz called it a “dereliction of duty… motivated by his far-left politics,” saying the statutes were constitutional and “Minnesota deserves an attorney general who will stand up to activist judges.”

He vowed during a March GOP candidate forum to do everything he could to ensure that the unborn are “defended aggressively.”

“We need to not just be on defense on this issue. The fact is, Democrats are the extremists on the issue,” he said during the forum. “I’ll be the one going on offense on the issue. So many times, Democrats attack us, the media attacks us, and then the Republicans go into this defensive crouch. Well, that’s not going to be me. Offense, offense, offense.”

Schultz served on the board of directors for the Human Life Alliance, a nonprofit that produces anti-abortion information, including debunked claims that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, drug abuse, suicide and other mental health problems.

Now, Schultz says he supports abortion rights up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, and his campaign manager has said “Jim has made clear that, although Jim is pro-life, he will not leverage what should be an apolitical office to advocate for abortion policy.”

The next attorney general will also be tasked with continuing to defend Minnesota’s new insulin statute, which forces drugmakers to provide affordable insulin. The trade group representing insulin makers sued the state of Minnesota after the law — which was a hard-won compromise after nearly two years of negotiations— took effect in 2020. 

Would Schultz — with a history of working with corporate law firms that represent pharmaceutical companies — vigorously defend these kinds of state laws? 

Schultz said during a recent debate he would defend the insulin law. 

During another debate, Schultz said he would defend any law the Legislature passes and governor signs.

“Unfortunately we have an attorney general’s office right now that spends its time focusing on its own political priorities, not the priorities of defending and enforcing Minnesota law,” he said. “I will do that irrespective of my personal viewpoints.” 

When AG offices change hands, so do targets 

In the past 15 years or so, the states — represented by their attorneys general — have played an increasingly prominent role in national ideological legal battles. 

Mississippi’s attorney general — the first Republican to hold the office in decades — defended the state’s anti-abortion law before the Supreme Court, acknowledging her intent to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Conservatives have used the office to weaken the government’s ability to regulate business and pollution they create: West Virginia’s attorney general sued the EPA over greenhouse gas emissions rules, leading the court to limit the agency’s rulemaking power.

A half dozen Republican states are fighting the Biden administration’s recent move to cancel some student debt.  

During the Trump administration, former Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson joined a lawsuit against the 45th president’s immigration order. 

In fact, as NBC News reported, the Trump administration faced 138 multistate lawsuits, according to data compiled by Paul Nolette, a political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee who studies the office of attorney general. They sued over the travel ban, DACA, the border wall and Obamacare, among dozens of other subjects. 

Although Schultz has accused Ellison of politicizing the office, if Schultz were attorney general, he could put Minnesota’s name on lawsuits against the Biden administration on issues including gun control, election laws and immigration issues.

Schultz’s campaign manager, Christine Snell, said his standard for suing a presidential administration — regardless which party they belong to — is whether there is a “serious threat to the rights of Minnesotans.” She said there have been many instances in recent years that both Republicans and Democrats have brought cases against presidents that lack merit and are focused on headlines.

“Jim would not bring such cases,” she said.

Still, Schultz would feel at home on this ideological battlefield. 

He was national editor for the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, the official journal of the Federalist Society. 

During that tenure, the journal published stories arguing the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is not the proper constitutional ground for abortion rights, and that marriage should be between a man and woman. 

The journal published an article that argued gay marriage would open the floodgates to claims of discrimination against those “seeking open, temporary, polygynous, polyandrous, polyamorous, incestuous, or bestial unions.”

“After all,” the article said, “people can find themselves experiencing sexual and romantic desire for multiple partners (concurrent or serial), or closely blood‐related partners, or nonhuman partners. They are (presumably) free not to act on these sexual desires, but this is true also of people attracted to persons of the same sex.”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.