It has become a tradition in Virginia for the elected attorney general to resign before the completion of his four-year term to run for higher office, usually that of governor. In 1947, Abram P. Staples resigned to accept appointment as judge of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. In 1957, J. Lindsay Almond left the position to run for governor, followed by Albertis S. Harrison, who left in 1961 for the same reason. Andrew P. Miller left during his second term in 1977 to run for governor, as did Gerald Baliles in 1985 and Mary Sue Terry in 1993. Jim Gilmore, III resigned in 1997, Mark Earley left the office in 2001 and Jerry W. Kilgore left in 2005, all for races for governor. Our current governor, Robert F. McDonnell, left in 2009 for his successful campaign.
The office gives the attorney general wide visibility to the public. Because it is one of only three statewide elected officials, the post is seen as a steppingstone to higher office. Along with the lieutenant governor, the attorney general is seen as one of two candidates in contention to replace the sitting governor, who is constitutionally barred from running for reelection. Last year, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling stepped aside as a candidate, giving former senator and then Attorney General Bob McDonnell a clear field for his nomination and subsequent election.
The office of Attorney General has duties and powers defined by state law: Providing legal advice and representation in court for the governor and the state government; providing legal advice and official opinions to members of the General Assembly and local government officials; defending the state in cases of criminal appeals and suits against the state; defending the constitutionality of state laws; collecting money owed to state institutions; and overseeing one of the largest law firms in Virginia. The staff includes a chief deputy attorney general, five deputy attorneys general and about 150 assistant attorneys general, 40 additional full-time lawyers appointed as special counsel to particular agencies and 140 legal assistants, legal secretaries and other professional support staff. The office is structured much like a private law firm, with sections devoted to legal specialties.
The current Virginia Attorney General is Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, II, who grew up in Fairfax County and attended Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D. C., with a homeless shelter attached, which Cuccinelli believes helped him become the person he is today. After receiving a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Virginia, he entered the George Mason University School of Law. During his last year, he was awarded an internship in the office of then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.
He married the former Alice Monteiro “Teiro” Davis of Arlington, whom he had courted in his high school days. The couple has seven children, whom they homeschooled through the sixth grade.
Cuccinelli practiced law in Fairfax County for 10 years as a court-appointed attorney for individuals in Virginia’s involuntary civil commitment process. In this role, he saw a responsibility to ensure that those who suffer from mental illness were protected in the court of law. When a senate seat became open due to a resignation, he made his first run for political office. The next year he was elected to a four-year term and was reelected in 2007 by a margin of 98 votes in a recount of the 37,000 votes cast. He reportedly spent $1 million on the election for the seat, which paid $18,000 annually. He handily defeated his opponent for attorney general in 2009.
As a state senator, Cuccinelli did not always vote along party lines. A striking example was on the 2009 Transportation Bill, which he opposed, although it was passed by the General Assembly. Soon after its approval, the state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional by an 11-0 vote.
Cuccinelli, now 42, has been an aggressive attorney general, as evidenced by his willingness to take on monumental and defining issues: Health care, climate change research and the national government itself. As a conservative superstar, he has become a favorite of the Tea Party movement, and has been tapped as a featured speaker at its state convention in October. During his first 100 days in office, he filed a challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to regulate greenhouse gases, advised public colleges that they lacked the authority to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and demanded that his alma mater, the University of Virginia, release a former professor’s work on climate change.
The Attorney General’s stand on several issues, such as immigration and health care, will likely reach the U.S. Supreme Court before his term ends. With the national publicity he has already received, there will be exciting times ahead. In his office, along with the American and Virginia flags, is a yellow banner: “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Watch this guy!