You might think Republican law-and-order types would support funding for more prosecutors. Nope. Not when that request comes from Minnesota’s chief prosecutor, Attorney General Keith Ellison. In this legislative session, they would not fund much-needed attorneys for the criminal division of the attorney general’s office.
Back in 1999, the criminal division boasted a dozen full-time prosecutors. They responded to requests for help from county attorneys around the state in major felonies and criminal appeals. After 1999, the number of attorneys in the criminal division was cut and cut and cut again. By the time Ellison took office in 2019, the criminal division had only one attorney.
The attorney general’s responsibilities also include enforcing state consumer protection and antitrust laws, regulating charitable institutions, and advocating for people and small businesses in utilities matters. The Star Tribune characterized the cuts to the criminal division as a shift in priorities, with the office focusing on “predatory lending, for-profit colleges and environmental matters such as the $850 million settlement with 3M over groundwater contamination.”
Ellison wants to rebuild the criminal division, and that means more prosecutors. He asked for 11 more, enough to rebuild the office to the strength it had 22 years ago. Republicans in the legislature refused.
The attorney general cannot choose which cases to prosecute. His office can only respond to requests from local prosecutors. Those requests are increasing in both number and difficulty.
In the past, some Republicans supported strengthening the capacity of the attorney general’s office to prosecute criminals. Back in January 2019, before George Floyd’s murder, before the attorney general’s successful prosecution of Derek Chauvin, Minnesota Lawyer reported:
“In 2018, both Ellison and his GOP opponent Doug Wardlow campaigned on adding heft to the AG’s criminal division. …
“Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, is himself an attorney who has worked as a public defender and administrative law judge. He supports the unit’s expansion and said it is long overdue.
“’For many years the attorney general’s office was very active in criminal prosecutions,’ Newman said in an interview. ‘That portion of the office almost doesn’t exist anymore and it is sorely needed.’
“Newman said many outstate county attorneys don’t have the wherewithal, expertise, or the staff to handle the most complex criminal investigations.
“’But they are nevertheless really serious criminal matters,’ Newman said. ‘When asked, that is when the attorney general does have a legal obligation, in my estimation, to step in and help. And that is what I think [Ellison] is going to do.’”
Those “really serious criminal matters” include prosecution of police officers. Last summer, Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, and Washington County Attorneys signed a protocol asking the attorney general to take police use of deadly force cases. That will mean more time—and resource-intensive prosecutions—including the pending prosecution of former Brooklyn Center officer Kim Potter for the shooting of Daunte Wright on April 11, 2021.
Shortly after taking office, Attorney General Keith Ellison and Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington convened a working group on police-involved deadly force encounters. After hearings across the state, the working group released a report, recommendations, and action steps in February 2020, months before the murder of George Floyd.
Legislators knew about the Chauvin and Potter prosecutions. They knew about the incredible burden such cases place on the attorney general’s office. They knew that the attorney general turned to the private bar for volunteers to work on the Derek Chauvin case. They knew about the county attorneys’ decision to refer police use of deadly force cases to the attorney general.
If Minnesota Republicans were serious about law and order, they would support law and order for all—including police. If Minnesota Republicans were serious about prosecuting criminals, they would support a robust criminal division in the attorney general’s office.
That’s not happening. So, when Republican legislators fulminate about law and order and crime in Minneapolis, they are pretty clearly sounding a racist dog whistle and not making a serious policy argument at all.
Mary Turck is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. She has published extensively as a journalist and has edited the Connection to the Americas and of the TC Daily Planet. Her website, maryturck.com, includes her literary and political blogs.