Politics

During a contentious committee hearing late Wednesday night, Republican lawmakers advanced a bill that would limit the powers of the state attorney general’s office.

Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, called the proposal “silly and unfortunate legislation” and accused lawmakers of trying to give Gov. Matt Bevin more power at the expense of his office.

“This comes at a very high price, simply for a power grab,” Beshear said.

Under the legislation, the attorney general would no longer be able to file an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” brief on behalf of the state.

The governor would instead have the sole authority to file amici briefs, which are filed when the state wants to weigh in on court cases that it isn’t involved in, but has an interest in.

The bill would also set caps on how much the attorney general can spend hiring outside counsel to defend state laws, require those contracts be approved by the legislature and notify the governor whether he or she will defend state laws alleged to be unconstitutional.

Beshear says if the law passes, he will challenge it in court.

“Taking away our ability to file briefs in front of the Supreme Court and giving it to the governor’s general counsel is definitely attacking the attorney general as the supreme law officer of the commonwealth,” Beshear said.

Senate President Robert Stivers argued that the legislation would solve confusion “with respect to who is the official voice and who files the position of the state.”

Stivers cited an instance last year when Beshear filed an amicus brief in support of a federal lawsuit against Hardin County’s local right-to-work ordinance. Republicans — including the governor — were supportive of that local ordinance.

Stivers asserted that the General Assembly had the power to change the attorney general’s duties

“The attorney general derives his power through the acts of the legislature,” Stivers said.

The bill has been changed from a previous version that would have stripped the attorney general’s powers to file most lawsuits.

Republicans have targeted Beshear after several high-profile legal challenges to Bevin over the last year.

As a result of the lawsuits, the state Supreme Court ruled that Bevin had illegally cut funding to higher education institutions and a trial court ruled against the governor’s overhaul of the University of Louisville Board of trustees.

Beshear also said he wouldn’t defend the state’s new ban on abortions after the 20th week in pregnancy if it were challenged, calling it unconstitutional.

In order to become law, the bill will have to pass the full state Senate, and then the House of Representatives — which passed an earlier version of the legislation — will have to agree with the changes.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.