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Attorney general scores multiple victories
Jones on Georgia

ATLANTA --- Sam Olens is on a roll.

The state's new attorney general has been in office less than seven months after being swept along with the tidal wave that gave Republicans control of every statewide race last fall.

In that short time, the 200-employee Law Department he oversees has scored major triumphs. In recent weeks, it has:

- Won its appeal over access to drinking water from Lake Lanier

- Got a partial victory in defense of the new immigration-enforcement law

- Participated with 25 other states in a successful challenge to federal health reform

- Joined Georgia Power and 22 states in blocking tougher environmental standards for the state's coal-fired power plants, which produce cheap electricity

- Secured federal approval for Georgia's method of verifying the citizenship of people who register to vote

- Pushed enactment of tougher penalties for human tracking.

He can't take credit singlehandedly for all of these accomplishments, and he doesn't.

"We've got great lawyers here," he said last week.

Still, he did exert leadership. Veterans in the department joke about his energy, enthusiasm and how he keeps them busier than they've been in years.

One indication of how Olens is more activist than his immediate predecessor, Democrat Thurbert Baker, is that he has already issued nearly six times as many official news releases as Baker did in all of 2010 when the incumbent was running for governor. Olens just has more to talk about.

For example, as a Republican, he's been more willing to join with other states in fighting the Democratic Obama administration. He's joined fights over health reform, environmental regulations and the National Labor Relation Board's decision to block Boeing's move of a production line to South Carolina to lower its labor costs.

"I think it's really important to be involved," he said.

He's also not shy about challenging the feds on his own. He sued the U.S. Department of Justice to get approval to enact Georgia's process for verifying the citizenship of people registering to vote.

"Part of the reason they have had good luck is because they are finally going to court," said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former Justice Department political appointee.

In court, Justice Department ideologues can't base their reasoning on rumor or philosophy to convince the judge the way they can in their administrative decisions, von Spakovsky argues. Instead, they have to argue the law and legal precedent.

That willingness to sue may be why the department gave preclearance last week to a controversial state law allowing governors to remove elected school-board members from office for unprofessional comments or behavior. Since all the school board members referred to by sponsors of the legislation were black, preclearance was expected to be iffy.

His attention hasn't only focused on Washington. He grew so frustrated with the Savannah City Council that he personally put on a seminar for its members on the Sunshine Law. In the same vein, he has announced intentions to investigate the Cherokee County School Board over its insistence in charging $300,000 to a citizen who requested public documents.

"From what I can tell, it's very sincere," said Jeremy Berry of the Georgia Committee for Ethical Judicial Elections.

The question arises because political opponents charged Olens with trying to use the attorney general's position as a steppingstone to the governor's office. But Berry notes that Olens campaigned last year on vigorous enforcement of the Sunshine Law and has drafted a revision that would increase penalties.

"That was his first legislative push, and he's made that a real priority," said Berry, who is a lawyer with the firm McKenna Long & Aldridge, hired by the Law Department for the Atlanta water case.

Although the water litigation has been simmering for years, most of the court strategy was crafted during Olen's watch. As Cobb County Commission chairman and chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, he was already familiar with the details of the case before becoming attorney general.

"I'd like to think that I've assisted," he deadpanned.

Advocacy groups applaud him for being approachable and open to their point of view, even on issues where they disagree. The Southern Center for Human Rights is one. It opposes his support of the state's immigration law but likes his Sunshine stance and probe of contract prosecutors known as special attorneys general.

"We commend Attorney General Olens for his commitment to transparency by prioritizing the state's compliance with the Open Records Act as well as by launching an inquiry into the effectiveness of the use of special attorneys general throughout Georgia," said Sara Totonchi, the center's executive director.

Newspapers, another group not always fans of Republicans, have also lauded his open-government approach.

"Attorney General Olens brings unique experiences to the office of attorney general," said David Hudson, the attorney for the Georgia Press Association. "Not only is he an accomplished lawyer, but he has the background of having been the chairman of one of Georgia's largest county governments -- Cobb County."

Olens hasn't won them all -- he lost the charter-school case, for example. For now, though, he has a batting average even Perry Mason would envy.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. He can be reached at, (404)589-8424 or on Twitter at MorrisNews.

Web posted on Thursday, July 07, 2011

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