The state attorney general is the top legal authority for Montana, the head of the Department of Justice, charged with representing the state and its agencies in a wide array of complex legal matters.
This year alone, the Attorney General’s Office has filed lawsuits against tobacco companies and opioid distributors, intervened in a lawsuit concerning coal leases and provided an opinion concerning concealed weapon permit fees. In addition to deciding which federal fights to pick and which to stay out of, the attorney general also had a great deal of flexibility in setting out priorities for the department.
The candidates for this office — Republican Austin Knudsen and Democrat Raph Graybill — are both concerned with crime, supportive of law enforcement and respectful of local efforts to make communities safer. However, Graybill’s priorities show a broader understanding of the range of problems facing Montana now, from pandemics to missing persons.
Knudsen, a former state legislative leader and current Roosevelt County Attorney, has a good grasp on the issues plaguing his northeastern Montana county, which has the highest violent crime rate in the state, according to statistics from the Montana Board of Crime Control. Much of this violence has been fueled by meth, Knudsen noted in an editorial board interview recently, and he would like to see greater efforts to crack down on that threat.
However, even as he calls for “more law enforcement” to deal with drug crimes, Knudsen also favors cutting the department’s budget, which has grown under its current Republican attorney general largely because of increases for the Montana Highway Patrol. He has not been clear enough on what, exactly, he would actually cut.
Graybill, who is Gov. Steve Bullock’s chief legal counsel, says he would approach meth and other drug-related crime by focusing first on mental health services and addiction treatment. Included in his detailed plans for the Attorney General’s Office is a proposal to enhance these services as a means of cutting off drug-related crimes before they even take root, rather than continually punishing offenders and filling up prisons. That’s a far better approach, both financially and for the overall well-being of Montanans.
Key to boosting mental health services is maintaining access to health care for vulnerable populations through Medicaid expansion, which covers nearly 90,000 Montanans. And key to Medicaid expansion is the Affordable Care Act, which Knudsen has long vocally opposed. With the U.S. Supreme Court set to hear a related case in November, and the ACA’s survival potentially hanging in the balance, Montana’s top attorney is in a unique position to let justices know how well it’s working for Montana. Graybill is prepared to make that case.
Graybill’s ideas also include further exploring ways to better address the disproportionate number of Native Americans involved in the criminal justice system, and continuing to call attention and resources to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
And when it comes to enforcing statewide orders, such as the governor’s directive to require face masks in certain public settings, Montanans can count on Graybill to use his authority to uphold such important public health measures. Unfortunately, health officials from Ravalli to Mineral to Cascade counties were recently left with no such leadership from Montana’s highest law enforcement official, and some of them even resigned over the lack of support.
Graybill not only has experience as a lawyer and court clerk, but also was an auxiliary police officer while attending college at Columbia University before going on to Yale Law School and the University of Oxford. Since returning to Montana (he grew up in Great Falls), he has argued some of the most important cases in state history, grabbing national headlines for defending the state’s conservation easement program and its laws regarding dark money. Graybill also wrote Montana’s ban on foreign money in state elections, and was responsible for writing the executive order barring any internet providers under contract with the state from blocking or charging more for faster service — essentially requiring net neutrality.
Graybill has the right background and, even more importantly, the right approach to solving Montana’s most pressing problems. That makes Graybill the right choice for attorney general.
This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian's Editorial Board: Publisher Jim Strauss, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen and Regional Editor David McCumber.