During this campaign year, Idahoans have heard a great deal about how a government attorney should handle his or her job. Is the attorney supposed to call the legal balls and strikes for public officials and agencies, as Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has said? Or, is the job of representing government bodies political in nature, where the lawyer can pursue her or his political objectives?
Phil Landrum, who has served 21 years as attorney for Pickens County, Georgia, gave an object lesson on how to perform governmental lawyering during a recent legal dust-up involving election skeptics. His story appears in an October 30 article in the Washington Post titled, “How one small-town lawyer faced down the plans of election skeptics.” Put the title in your browser because it is well worth reading. Landrum shows how a lawyer at the grassroots level of government can stand tall for the rule of law.
A number of Pickens County Republicans questioned the county vote in two statewide races in Georgia’s May GOP primary and demanded that the county election board release the sealed election ballots so that they would become public records, accessible by anyone. Despite the election board telling its lawyer, Landrum, to authorize the release of the ballots, he refused, saying it would be a violation of state law.
The election skeptics filed suit to get the ballots released but Landrum refused to give in. As a result of refusing to do what he determined would be against the law, he was vilified in the town where he’d grown up. According to the article: “He lost childhood friends, some of whom lobbied for him to be fired, saying that he was against ‘community values,’ to which Landrum responded by explaining what being the Pickens County attorney meant. ‘My role is not to represent community values,’ he told them. ‘My role is to tell you what the damn law is.’”
Against overwhelming community pressure, Landrum capsulized the government lawyer’s ethical and legal duty in that last sentence. It exactly coincides with Wasden’s “balls and strikes” description. The unfortunate consequence of faithfully performing the job of government attorney is that it can turn your own friends and supporters against you, as Wasden learned in the May primary election.
Wasden’s main transgression was that he was not an election denier and refused to sign onto a completely frivolous Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The suit was unceremoniously tossed out by a unanimous Supreme Court, practically before the ink was dry on the papers. The suit has since been completely discredited, as it became clear to anyone who actually read it that the suit was not supported by either the facts or the law.
Like Landrum, Wasden was subjected to ridicule and rejection, just for faithfully carrying out his sworn duty to read and apply the law. Among those who scorned Wasden for simply doing his job were a flock of Idaho politicians, including Speaker of the House Scott Bedke and Majority Leader Mike Moyle. Rep. Bruce Skaug, a lawyer who should have known better, joined the ill-fated Texas suit. Congressmen Russ Fulcher and Mike Simpson joined to support the Texas effort. Wasden lost the May 17 Republican primary to an election denier who still to this day vows he would sign onto the meritless Texas suit. He certainly fails the simple Landrum test.
Maybe you have to be a lawyer to truly appreciate the Landrum story. But, it really struck me that a small-town government lawyer in the deep south would stand up for the rule of law despite the fact that many in the town turned against him for doing so. Regardless of your location, that is what the job requires. It is interesting that we have seen the same dynamic play out in the State of Idaho this year–does the State’s lawyer tell “what the damn law is” or does he recite what may be politically popular at the time? The answer may come on November 8.
Incidentally, Landrum was vindicated. He won the court case, the judge holding that he was correct in his reading of the law. The law prevailed over community sentiment.