When Tom Miller became Iowa’s Attorney General in the 1970s, the office was relatively quiet. Although the Attorney General is always described as “the state’s chief law enforcement officer,” the reality is that criminal prosecutions are primarily handled at the local level. At the time, AG spent its time chasing discounters, but it was not a formidable force in American politics.
That all changed when Miller left the office today after a 40-year career. State attorneys general have become the de facto regulators of the country, reshaping the way many industries such as pharmaceutical companies, technology companies, and mortgage companies do business. They have also obstructed or derailed key policies in areas such as health and the environment, and have become major opponents of successive presidential administrations.
Miller isn’t responsible for all these changes, but he’s been a fulcrum in efforts to nationalize the law and bring the various state AGs together to function strongly as a group. Democrats have been the longest serving Attorney General in American history. “He and I disagreed on politics. We disagreed on politics. As Attorney General of Idaho. “He’s my best friend in his AG world.”
Miller understood early on that many of the challenges faced by Iowa consumers and the general public were caused by forces far beyond state borders. As the economy nationalized, he realized that legal remedies also needed to be nationalized. As of 1985 he wrote:
It started with a lawsuit against General Motors for hyping the Oldsmobile engine in a 1977 ad. But the concept really started in 1998 with a massive lawsuit against the tobacco industry, in which state AGs banded together to force cigarette manufacturers to pay for medical costs related to their products. The settlement would have required him to raise $246 billion over the next 25 years.
When action in Congress was blocked, the AG did it. Additionally, they changed the rules regarding how tobacco companies do business. For example, it was to ban marketing to children. In the first few years after reaching the settlement, cigarette sales fell by 21%.
Miller played a leading role in that case, as well as other domestic cases involving Microsoft, mortgage lenders, and opioid manufacturers and distributors. Miller is the opposite of flashy, but even his opponents recognize how crafty he is. Wasden recalls a negotiating session where the tobacco company CEO got so angry he started spitting, his fingers turning white as he grabbed the table. Miller was able to calm him down and make the conversation productive.
James Tierney, who runs the state AG program at Harvard Law School, said: “Every business comes to Des Moines to find out how serious the problem is.
There was no partisan AG organization when Miller took office. As recently as six years before him, these organizations maintained an informal agreement not to pursue the other incumbent. When the Republican Association of Attorney Generals Association (RAGA) voted to end that policy in his 2017, Democrats quickly followed suit. RAGA spent more than his $2.5 million last year to replace Miller. The AG’s actions have become increasingly partisan, with Republicans routinely suing the Biden administration following hundreds of Democratic lawsuits against the Trump administration.
Miller almost had to keep quiet. In 2019, he agreed to get permission from Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds for each out-of-state lawsuit to prevent Congress from getting his wing even closer. It means I won’t sue the Trump administration,” Miller said.
In a way, that deal showed where things were going. During last year’s campaign, Reynolds said he wanted to have “his own” state AG. Miller lost his November to Republican county attorney Brennavard by his 20,000-vote margin. “He fell victim to the fact that he was a moderate Democrat in an increasingly polarized state,” says Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford. “In his decade, Iowa became a red state.”
Miller, 78, may have been AG for much longer. He lost his 1974 election when he was the Democratic nominee for the AG. He bypassed his 1990 election to run for governor, but in 1994 he was reinstated as an AG.
Iowa has a very long tradition of holding civil servants in office. Terry Branstad broke the record as the longest-serving U.S. governor in 2015. Charles Grassley has just won his eighth term in the U.S. Senate, becoming a senior member of the Senate in the new House. Both are Republicans. Neither Miller nor Michael Fitzgerald, the United States’ longest-serving state treasurer, failed to win re-election as a Democrat in November.
“Because of Tom Miller, the benefits Iowa has received compared to Kansas, Arkansas, Nebraska, and other states with comparable demographics and politics have been amazing,” says Tierney.
Just before the New Year, Miller rule about his career. Here’s an edited excerpt:
Governance: Your career helps tell how the role of the Attorney General has changed over the last half century. No, but it may be 40-50 now.
Miller: Naturally evolved. GM’s case was almost accidental. They were advertising a powered up Oldsmobile with a Chevrolet engine. And many states are investigating, ready to sue, and a settlement has been reached. In part, GM may have seen a settlement with a group of states make more sense. And it caught people’s attention.
And what really got people’s attention was that doing it as a group gave us more resources and influence. But when we’re united, we’re stronger. We also had the idea that separate lawsuits from individual states would be a hassle for the company, so some leverage in that regard. had. This developed in the consumer space, then in the antitrust space, and we gradually got stronger. Then the cigarette case arrived. There has never been and never will be a case like cigarettes.
Governance: Why does that case stand out?
Miller: We’ve done a lot for our citizens. Most important was perhaps the number of lives at stake. That made it very important. And up until that point, the tobacco industry was in an unbeatable position. Billions of dollars were at stake.
Governance: Often times, people crave criminal charges when large-scale misconduct is committed. Please explain why these civil settlements are so important.
Miller: Civil lawsuits have great merit. One is changing behavior and the other is recovering money for compensation or, in the case of opioids, correcting nuisance behavior, including significantly helping people through treatment and prevention. Criminal cases actually serve another role in terms of deterrence. As for opioids, I think there should have been more federal prosecution, but perhaps more criminal prosecution.
Governance: Can you talk about where you were able to work with the federal government in a way?
Miller: Two typical cases are Microsoft and bank mortgages. We have had a very close, constructive, and beneficial relationship with the public with the Department of Justice. As for Microsoft, it was a great example of the federal government working with the states on a completely bipartisan basis. There were about 21 or 22 states and quite a few Republican states. It also included New York, where Dennis Vacco was the Republican AG at the time. To some extent, we had to work together. Microsoft was stronger than the federal government, the judiciary, and the states at that point. They were incredibly powerful.
Governance: Human relationships are important, and as you said, I was able to do a lot of work with the other AG. But everything became more partisan. How difficult is collaboration now?
Miller: So let’s look at recent events. Opioids are an extraordinary bipartisan effort. All states are involved in it in some way. The first executive committee he consisted of four states. Two Democrats and two Republicans, one of whom was Ken of Texas he was Paxton. A great example of bipartisanship when it comes to opioids. Another major lawsuit is the antitrust lawsuit against Google, which is also a highly bipartisan effort.