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Aspiring attorneys general face off: Other campaigns get the spotlight, but this one deserves a closer look

Rebecca Berfanger
January 1, 2008
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With at least two very closely watched races in Indiana - governor and president - and multiple political theories about how either race will go, there's bound to be less attention paid to some of the other candidates.

But with Republican Gregory Zoeller and Democrat Linda Pence up for the attorney general post and the incumbent Steve Carter not running, this race is worth another look.

At stake is the oversight of the state attorney general's office, basically a very large law firm with 140 lawyers that represent more cases before the state appellate courts than any traditional law firm.

A public law firm

Zoeller compares his current role as chief deputy to the Indiana attorney general to that of managing partner at a law firm. But the attorney general's office would be called a "public law firm," he said.

Similar issues between private law firms and the state office are how they address recruitment and retention of employees and job satisfaction. However, deputy attorneys general typically make less than lawyers at private law firms of similar size.

Other differences are significant, Zoeller said, because "we only have one client, the state of Indiana and the people who live here." He contrasts this with a private law firm that would represent a number of clients and with those clients there is a business interest in terms of the number of billable hours.

Zoeller said that under Carter, the office also has created an emphasis on mediation when possible.

The current administration also has worked with people at various levels of the justice system to explain what it is that they can do to have fewer cases overturned on appeal. For instance, an exchange program between the deputy county prosecutors who work at the trial level and deputy attorneys general who work at the appellate level helps each get to know how the other works and what each could improve.

These exchanges and other information the attorney general's office has shared with county-level prosecutors, police departments, and others who work on cases at the trial level have helped boost the number of successfully defended cases on appeal from about 80 percent under Carter's predecessor to 93 percent now.

"I like to say it's up to county prosecutors to put criminals behind bars and the attorney general office's job to keep them there," he said.

There's merit to working with state agencies early on when they're making decisions to avoid situations that aren't legally defensible," he said.

Zoeller would continue the work he's been doing under Carter but would add a few programs. One program he'd like to implement is something similar to the "Do Not Call" list, which he helped implement under Carter, but would be an opt-in program for parents to protect their children from Internet predators.

A better place for all

While Pence may be unfamiliar intimately with how the office works, she thinks the role of the attorney general should be tougher than it already is. She would also look into what the office outsources and determine what could be done more efficiently.

"It is the top lawyer in the state. ... I think the attorney general must be a leader in analyzing situations, defending and prosecuting lawsuits when appropriate. ... It's primary mission is to make the state a better place for all of us," she said.

Pence comes to the campaign as a litigator who started her career with the U.S. Department of Justice where she worked from 1974 to 1983. She saw what worked in the DOJ's office and has already started thinking about what could be applied to the attorney general's office.

Currently, she's co-chair of the litigation section at Taft Stettinius & Hollister in Indianapolis and decided to run for office because she wanted to give something back to Indiana.

"I want to take this office to a whole other level," she said. "What I will do when I'm attorney general is first to set priorities that have not been set but in my view should be."

Among these priorities is the protection of children when it comes to both child fatalities and children targeted by predators, such as adults who volunteer at schools.

She said she also would take a more offensive stance when it comes to meth labs.

Pence also would take another look at what the state can do to help people facing mortgage fraud, foreclosures, and bankruptcies - especially when it comes to groups that may be more at risk, such as the elderly.

Role of office

While it's not that Zoeller wants these things to continue, he interprets the role of the attorney general's office as one that may sometimes help prosecutors with cases in their counties, but more often than not will leave county-level cases to the county prosecutors unless he's specifically asked for help.

And if there are allegations of fraud, he said the role of the office is to look for patterns and take action when necessary, based on the decision of the Consumer Protection Division.

However, Pence said that the mortgage crisis is something she's known about at least since the first or second year of the current administration, but it's something she doesn't think the office has taken seriously enough.

While Pence has been criticized in the media for having defended clients against the attorney general's office, she disagrees, saying that experience can only make her stronger.

After working as a prosecutor, representing defendants and plaintiffs on the civil side, "I know the tricks," she said.

In response to any concerns there may be about conflicts with former clients, Pence said it's just the nature of being in the practice of law and that they can happen all the time because it's always possible that someone is someone's former client, friend, or relative.

The winner of this race also may depend on the governor's race because Zoeller and incumbent Gov. Mitch Daniels have been publicly supporting each other as Pence and gubernatorial challenger Jill Long Thompson have publicly supported one another.

Or it may not matter.

Former political reporter, lawyer, and commentator who has been paying close attention to this race, Jennifer Wagner, said either way this is a race to watch.

"The two candidates from everything I've heard are raising a fair amount of money for paid media," she said. "This is not a high-profile race, which may mean that it's more in play because people don't know a lot about either candidate. I've been seeing more ads from both. ... A lot of folks are writing off this race, and I think you've got two strong candidates."

Wagner added that there may be more ticket splitting this year considering the close race between McCain and Obama, even though Indiana is traditionally a Republican state.

She added that the fact Pence is a woman may help her, especially if there are people who don't vote for Thompson but still want to vote for a woman.

"That's just pure political theory," Wagner said, adding that Pence and Zoeller's differing views on the role of the office may make a difference to some voters.

"I would guess nine out of 10 people in the general public don't know what the AG does," she said. "While in reality the office is an administrative role, people tend to think the AG is like the district attorney in 'Law & Order,' a courtroom brawler."

For more information about both candidates, including their campaign videos and biographies, visit their Web sites. Zoeller's campaign is available at http://www.z4ag.com; Pence's campaign is at http://www.lindaforag.com. Election Day is Nov. 4. •
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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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