Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt says fighting to make sure federal officials don't exceed their constitutional authority may be the most important role he plays as Oklahoma's attorney general.
Elected as just the second Republican attorney general in state history in November 2010, Pruitt has quickly gained a national reputation for his Don Quixote-like advocacy of federalism and relentless efforts to challenge any federal law or action that he sees as an infringement on individual liberties or states' rights.
Pruitt sat down with a reporter from The Oklahoman recently to discuss why he has chosen to devote so much of his time and office's resources to combating new federal laws and administrative actions.
The former state senator insists it's not a matter of partisan politics.
“It's all about making sure the enumerated powers — the limited powers that are vested in the federal government — are there. And if there is an expansion or overreach beyond that, the states step in,” Pruitt said. “That's exactly the role, I would say, of the modern-day AG.”
Pruitt was one of 28 state attorneys general who sued in an effort to stop federally mandated health insurance, commonly referred to as Obamacare.
He also was one of several attorneys general who sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency over its efforts to override state-proposed regional haze standards and impose its own, more stringent, antipollution standards.
“That federal plan, at the time, was going to force utility companies in the state of Oklahoma to spend approximately $2 billion-plus over a 3-year period, which would have caused utility rates to be raised during that same 3-year period by 15 to 20 percent,” he said.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued an order preventing the EPA from implementing the plan before the case can be litigated.
“That's an important victory for Oklahomans,” he said. “That's federalism in action.”
Pruitt now wants to know whether the EPA has been secretly coordinating with national environmental groups that have filed a series of what appear to have been friendly lawsuits alleging violations of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
The EPA agreed to quick settlements in many such cases, paying huge attorneys fees and agreeing to consent decrees that have resulted in stringent standards while usurping the role of states as partners with the federal government in developing and implementing antipollution standards, Pruitt said.
“This hasn't just happened once or twice,” he said. “This has happened dozens of times …. If they're doing this as a strategy to try to adopt policies and impose substantive requirements on the states that they couldn't get passed through the regulatory process or through the legislative process, it's wrong and we'll take corrective steps.”
Pruitt led 12 other state attorneys general in filing a Freedom of Information request in August designed to find out what behind-the-scenes communication has been going on between the EPA and the national environmental groups.
Pruitt said many people regard federalism as just a topic for academic discussions, but the regional haze issue illustrates how court battles over federalism can have huge economic consequences for average Oklahomans.
Pruitt cited the Supreme Court case over federally mandated health care insurance as another example.
Pruitt said he and the other attorneys general filed their court actions because they didn't believe the federal government's power to regulate commerce granted it the authority to compel people to buy health insurance.
The Supreme Court agreed with that point, but upheld key portions of the health care act under the federal government's authority to tax.
Even so, Pruitt said he regards the limitations the Supreme Court placed on the Commerce Clause as an important partial victory.
Pruitt said he is gearing up for another potential federalism fight that could pose a gigantic risk to Oklahoma's economy.
There have been discussions at the federal level about the EPA and federal Bureau of Land Management potentially asserting regulatory authority over hydraulic fracturing, an oil and natural gas drilling technique that Pruitt contends has been regulated successfully for decades at the state level.
Technological advancements in hydraulic fracturing have fueled the current oil and gas boom by enabling the commercial extraction of huge reservoirs of oil and natural gas that previously had been locked in massive shale formations.
Some of those formations are located near populated areas back East, where residents haven't had much past experience with oil and gas drilling. Environmentalists in those areas have been calling for increased federal regulation because of concerns about potential water contamination.
If federal agencies were to implement regulations curtailing hydraulic fracturing, it would have a huge impact on Oklahoma's multibillion dollar oil and gas industry.
Pruitt said he is prepared to battle to maintain state regulatory control.
Pruitt's advocacy for states' rights has earned him recognition with his peers in other states. He currently serves as chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association and vice chairman of the Midwest Region of the National Association of Attorneys General.
Pruitt's increased national exposure has prompted some to wonder whether he has national political aspirations.
Pruitt, a huge baseball fan and former co-owner and managing general partner of the Oklahoma City RedHawks Triple-A baseball team, turned to his baseball roots and paraphrased a former great New York Yankee catcher when asked whether he has such aspirations.
“What was that quote by Yogi Berra? Predictions are pretty tough, particularly about the future,” he said.
“I'm excited to be where I am,” Pruitt said. “There couldn't be a better time to serve the people of Oklahoma as attorney general than today, because of all these things we're combating.”
Pruitt said Oklahomans needn't be concerned that all the time he has spent battling federal actions that he believes infringe on states' rights and individual liberties have distracted him from important state issues.
“At the same time that we're engaged on health care and at the same time we're engaged on regional haze and these other areas …, our workers' comp fraud unit last year prosecuted the most cases it has ever prosecuted and we're on track to exceed that this year,” he said.
Pruitt said he has an entire criminal appeals unit dedicated to making sure justice is administered to individuals who have harmed Oklahomans.
He then proceeded to rattle off a long list of state issues his office has been handling on a day-to-day basis.
“We're just doing our job,” he said. “All those things are important and we're doing all of those things, I think, in a meaningful way.”
It's all about making sure the enumerated powers — the limited powers that are vested in the federal government — are there. And if there is an expansion or overreach beyond that, the states step in. That's exactly the role, I would say, of the modern-day AG.”