Sometimes, even Paul LePage blunders into a good idea.

Shortly after the Republican governor won re-election earlier this month, he lost control of his mouth, crashed through some verbal puckerbrush and slammed into a solid innovation.

No, he didn’t propose making it a crime to begin political columns with lame metaphors. Fortunately.

What LePage careened into is the debate over how Maine chooses its attorney general. Which is by a method best described as constitutionally imposed stupidity.

Maine is the only state that does it that way. Like the secretary of state and the state treasurer, the state’s chief lawyer is elected every two years by the Legislature, although what really happens is the party with the most combined seats in the House and Senate handpicks its candidates for these positions. As a result, the constitutional officers are usually partisan hacks of dubious competence and questionable motives.

LePage is correct in thinking that needs to change. But as is so often the case, his preferred method of fixing the problem is likely to make the situation worse.

LePage want voters to choose the AG.

Maine doesn’t need another important post filled through a multimillion-dollar campaign featuring mudslinging, dark money and multiple, random endorsements by U.S. Sen. Angus King.

There’s no question the AG’s office is politicized enough right now. The current occupant, Democrat Janet Mills, has clashed frequently with the governor on both legal and ideological grounds. Mills has carried her party’s water on such issues as welfare reform and quarantining nurses with no symptoms of Ebola. And she’s annoyed executive branch bureaucrats by refusing to approve new rules that would have advanced LePage’s agenda of reducing regulations. In her defense, some of these proposals were blatantly unconstitutional.

“We have a stack of regulations that we were entrusted to write and we can’t get them through because we have an attorney general who says it’s illegal,” the governor lamented to the Bangor Daily News.

Apparently, Maine businesses have long been asking for more illegal regulations.

The governor says he’s going to introduce a bill taking away the AG’s power to review new rules in the early stages of their development, thereby making it easier to slip through those unconstitutional bits. That measure is unlikely to go anywhere in the Legislature, with even some Republicans fearing it would open the state up to lawsuits and legal expenses.

But let’s get back to how Maine selects its AG. Letting a legislative majority fill the post is a throwback to the days when we also picked our U.S. senators that way. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a Senate filled with weasels, resulting in the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913 shifting the choice to the voters.

Since then, the weasel thing has gotten worse, probably because the only method less effective than letting our elected leaders make important choices is making them ourselves.

There is, however, another option, one that would go a long way toward assuring the state of having a chief legal officer who is both highly skilled and even-handed. And I’m betting even LePage would endorse the idea.

Let’s choose the attorney general the same way we select our judges.

Judges are nominated for seven-year terms by the governor and vetted by a legislative committee before being voted on by the state Senate. Maine’s judiciary has a long history of nonpartisanship. In part, this is because most court cases in the state don’t have much in the way of an ideological component. But it’s mostly because Maine governors – including LePage – have paid little attention to party registration when making court appointments, and the state Legislature has almost never rejected a nominee for partisan reasons. What works for the judicial branch ought to function just as well for the AG.

All it would take is a constitutional amendment allowing the governor to nominate the AG. The Legislature would then hold hearings to assess the nominee’s qualifications. Once confirmed by the state Senate, the new top lawyer would serve a single seven-year term. Having the AG’s time in office differ from that of the appointing governor’s would provide independence. And not having to worry about winning a second term would insulate the AG from political pressure. Any AG who served well would likely be considered a potential appointee to fill a vacancy on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

The governor (who’s said he thinks failed gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler should be the next AG) is correct that Maine needs to change the way it fills that office, although he’s wrong about the best way to do that. LePage needs to get towed back on the track, straighten his damaged steering column and drive at moderate speed toward the finish line.

Maybe then he could introduce a bill to deal with those awful metaphors.

Emails containing colorful figures of speech can be sent to [email protected]


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