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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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