In less than a month, the Legislature will cast secret ballots to select Maine’s next attorney general, and for the first time since 1980, the state’s top lawyer is expected to be a Republican.

Ever since Richard Cohen held the post 30 years ago, the office has been held by a succession of five Democrats — most recently Janet Mills, Maine’s first female attorney general.

Now that the GOP has won a majority of the legislative seats, it has the opportunity to elect a Republican lawyer to the post. The attorney general is responsible for overseeing about 100 lawyers whose central mission is to defend state agencies against lawsuits and to stand up for the legal rights of Maine citizens.

So if the votes fall predictably and a Republican gets the job, what should the public expect? Will the new attorney general replace the current staff lawyers and implement a vastly different priority list from his or her predecessors?

Observers say that’s unlikely. While there will almost certainly be a change in the type of high-profile national cases that a Republican attorney general joins, Mainers should not expect a major overhaul in personnel or the way the office does business, for two major reasons.

First, Maine has a long-standing tradition of independence in the Attorney General’s Office. It’s the only state in the country where the attorney general is elected by secret ballot in the Legislature; in most states, the post is elected by the general population, which gives that person a lot more reasons to be politically minded.

“In Maine, the attorney general is really the state’s chief legal officer. You really have to represent all the people of the state,” said Jon Doyle, a Republican lobbyist and former deputy attorney general. He founded the firm Doyle and Nelson in Augusta.

“It is a pretty solemn responsibility when you get to give legal advice that affects literally thousands of people,” Doyle said.

Secondly, most of the day-to-day work within the Attorney General’s Office is not political in nature.

“If the state gets sued, you have to defend, period,” said Cab Howard, a lawyer who worked under six Maine attorneys general in 24 years at the office.

“Any new incoming attorney general is going to have his own set of priorities. But the vast bulk of what goes on in the AG’s Office does not involve politics,” said Howard, who now serves as a professor at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland.

Political hot-button issues, such as a decision to join or file a lawsuit against a federal agency or a presidential administration, are rare and represent only a tiny fraction of the attorney general’s work, Howard said.

But he acknowledged that lawsuits brought in conjunction with attorneys general from other states often receive a lot of media attention, and generate much debate in the public.

For example, former Maine Attorney General Steve Rowe joined a lawsuit in 2007 that sought to give states more power in regulating auto emissions standards. Some critics have pointed to that suit and similar actions as examples of political activism on the part of Rowe, who was in the office from 2001 to 2008. Others said he was acting appropriately on a critical issue of public health and safety.

One question yet to be answered is whether Maine’s next attorney general will team up with his or her colleagues in other states to challenge federal legislation endorsed by President Obama.

During the campaign, Republican Gov.-elect Paul LePage said he hoped the next attorney general would join 20 other states in suing the government over the constitutionality of Obama’s sweeping health care reform. No states from New England are part of that litigation.

“The attorney general is kind of a free agent. If he is very doctrinaire, he could seek to join the other states that are challenging health care reform,” said Jon Lund, a publisher and former Republican legislator who was Maine’s attorney general in the early 1970s.

“That would be sort of grandstanding, it seems to me,” Lund said, noting that the other states involved in that suit already serve as a proxy for Maine, so there is little that would be added by Maine’s participation, except for a political statement.

The next attorney general also could withdraw Maine from pending lawsuits or agreements entered into by his or her predecessors. A list of those actions was not available last week.

“The advantage of the AG’s office is you don’t have to consult anybody,” Lund said. “Next year you might have someone who is looking to remove impediments to the creation of businesses and jobs, whatever those may be.”

Each attorney general brings his or her own areas of interest, Lund said, noting his focus on consumer protection. Richard Cohen had a keen interest in the criminal division, and Rowe directed a lot of resources toward the prevention of domestic violence.

Republicans in the Legislature have been discussing two names as potential nominees for the Nov. 30 joint caucus between the Senate and the House of Representatives: former state Sen. Doug Smith of Dover-Foxcroft and William Schneider, a former state representative from Durham who now serves as an assistant U.S. attorney in Portland.

Democrats are expected to nominate Janet Mills for a second term.

On Dec. 1, the full Legislature will vote for attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer.

The state general fund budget for the Attorney General’s Office is about $13.6 million this year, and about $7.9 million of that pays for the district attorneys and their assistants in the eight prosecutorial districts.

Doyle, Lund and Howard all agreed that the roster of assistant attorneys general will not likely change much, if at all, under a new boss.

“The tradition has been, with minor exceptions, that the AG has taken the lawyers as he found them,” Lund said. “I have never heard of any incoming AG who has failed to renew the employment of the lawyers in there. They are basically apolitical in that sense.”

An office reorganization, however, is certainly a possibility.

“It may be that responsibilities are rearranged,” Howard said. “I was there for five transitions. The new AG would come in, he would survey the office, figure out what everybody was doing and decide if he wanted to do things in a different way.”

Mills, who had been elected to her fourth term in the state House of Representatives before she was elected attorney general, said she wants a chance to finish some of the work she has started, such as a crackdown on welfare fraud.

“We have expanded collections work for state agencies, we have expanded our fraud work, we have brought millions of dollars to the state of Maine in those fraud cases, and we have stepped that up substantially,” Mills said.

Mills laid off five lawyers in the office last year because of budget cuts.

Mills also wants to continue to tackle the problem of prescription drug diversion. She said the office has been aggressive about revoking the licenses of medical workers, doctors and dentists who have been diverting medications for non-intended uses.

“We have been quietly meeting with chiefs of police, doctors, substance abuse counselors, medical examiners,” Mills said. “We have doubled our efforts for investigating drug deaths.”

Mills said the attorney general, more than anything, needs to properly defend the state against lawsuits.

“This office has not been run as a Democratic office or a Republican office or a partisan office whatsoever,” she said. “It needs to be headed by a good and experienced lawyer, because every day we are fighting claims against the state, class action lawsuits, very serious litigation.”

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

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