By Thomas Mitchell
As Adam Laxalt closes out his term as attorney general and transitions the office to his successor in January, he took the time to reflect on what his team has accomplished for Nevada.
“My vision for the office was to be more than an office that just represents state agencies and boards and commissions in areas that we thought we wanted to find ways to lead. The title of top law enforcement officer comes with the attorney general’s office but we really wanted to lead law enforcement, which is why we created the Law Enforcement Summit concept.”
One of the cases in which the office assisted law enforcement that Laxalt cited was out of Elko. In 2008 an Elko police officer stopped a California man named Ralph Torres for suspicion of underage drinking. Torres produced an ID showing he was 29, but the officer detained Torres while dispatch verified the ID and it turned out Torres had a felony warrant.
His conviction was overturned in 2015 by the Nevada Supreme Court, which said his detention violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Laxalt’s office took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and the arrest validity eventually was upheld.
“That’s just one example among many of things that came out of our coordination and cooperation with rural law enforcement,” Laxalt said, adding that the office also helped cut the backlog in sex offender registry.
Laxalt’s office also filed a lawsuit challenging the Obama administration’s restrictive land use plans intended to protect sage grouse that hurt mining and ranching.
Though the Trump administration lifted many of those restrictions, Laxalt contends that had his office not fought the Obama rules in court they might have been implemented. “We made sure we slowed that train down. Fortunately, the current administration has a more cooperative approach to working with our state,” Laxalt said.
He noted that creating a federalism unit in the attorney general’s office was also important, because, “In the years prior to my taking office you really saw federal overreach. You really saw the expansive interpretation of federal powers.”
Asked to define federalism, Laxalt explained, “I think people misinterpret it a lot. Federalism is, of course, to make sure that we keep as much power at the state level as we possibly can as the Framers intended. We don’t want people 3,000 miles away trying to decide minutiae of how we should be running our state.”
One example of this was the effort by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to redefine the waters of the U.S. under the Clean Water Act.
“They were going to redefine that ‘navigable waters’ phrase more broadly than Congress intended or, so we argued, as anyone intended. That would have really hampered our own state and own local ability to be able to take charge of our own water,” the attorney general said, noting that a coalition of states won an injunction that slowed the implementation until the current administration could issue more rational rules.
Since 85 percent of the state of Nevada is controlled by various federal land agencies, the highest percentage of any state, Nevada is more strongly impacted by federal restrictions on land use.
“Right now we think we’re in a better situation in this state,” Laxalt said. “The current administration certainly (Interior) Secretary (Ryan) Zinke and the head of the EPA have a more federalism approach to working with states.”
He expressed a level of satisfaction with his office’s efforts to include rural Nevada counties in the decision making process and fending off federal regulations that could have been an economic death knell for rural counties.
When asked about any future plans, Laxalt said he and the 400 employees in his office are currently working to transition to the next attorney general, Democrat Aaron Ford. He said he’ll think about his future next January and February.
He joked that he is looking forward to getting some sleep. Not only has he been running the attorney general’s office, seeking unsuccessfully to be elected governor, but also raising three children under the age of 5.
Asked whether he might run for public office again in the future, Laxalt said, “You know I care deeply about this state and I certainly hope — you know it is something I’ve talked about a lot this year — that I don’t want our state to turn into California. … I really hope we hold onto our values, such as small government, individual liberties.”
We shall see.