RightOhio.com’s Interview With Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray
On Tuesday afternoon, Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule for a telephone interview with me.
I would like to thank Holly Hollingsworth and Ted Hart of the Ohio Attorney General’s office for their assistance in scheduling this interview. Mr. Hart was rightfully skeptical of my interview request, but I thank him for being so polite and gracious.
I gave AG Cordray the opportunity to pause or rephrase any of his answers, but he never used that opportunity. I am a lousy stenographer, so all grammatical errors and typos are exclusively my fault. Below is the transcript:
Matt Naugle: I first met you at the Ohioans for Concealed Carry picnic in 2008, where you explained your support for gun rights. And during your speech, I was quite impressed by your various references to great writers and philosophers like John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Hobbes, et cetera. I was wondering if you could elaborate on how these authors influenced you in terms of defining your legal philosophy? And what is your legal philosophy?
Rich Cordray: Sure. It actually does inform, in a very direct way. I’m a fan of Abraham Lincoln’s, and he believed strongly, and I agree, that the rights provided and recognized in our Constitution weren’t just created there, but reflective of rights reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the writings of a number of the philosophers (mentioned above) from a century or two before.
And, you know, these rights includes the rights derived from self preservation, and the right to security, the right to pursue happiness. And those are, to me, the tenets that inform the constitutional rights which we all work to uphold. Especially me, the Attorney General of Ohio.
MN: Do have anything else to add about Locke and Hobbes specifically?
RC: Out of Locke and Hobbes in particular, Hobbes went one direction: absolute power in the government. Locke edited that, and improved upon it in my view, and actually went in a very different direction suggesting that government should be founded on separation of powers; really the basis of the “checks and balances” philosophy discussed in the Federalist papers, which is a very important part why American government, founded on these principles, has been successful.
One of the things we’ve added, which is different from Locke as well, is further separation of powers, not just horizontally, at the level of the Federal or central government, but also vertically in that we divide powers between the Federal government and the state. And, in fact, in Ohio, between local (and state) government, as well. And all of that, to me, helps preserve freedom and liberty for the citizens who would otherwise have to worry not only about outside oppressors from outside the country, but being oppressed by their own government.
MN: What sort of blogs and websites do you read often?
RC: You know, I don’t have particular favorites. I tend to read them all. Yours is one of them, no question.
MN: That’s a shame.
RC: HA HA. I tend to read those with deal with Ohio public issues and Ohio politics. That is obviously one of my interests and my line of work.
MN: What is Alex Trebek like in real life? Does he really know all the answers?
RC: As is evident on TV, he is very charming, which is why it has been an immensely successful show. For 25 years, he has been in people’s living rooms, and they still welcome him in, night after night, which is lucky for me, as that happens to be a credential of mine and people still recognize (the show).
In terms of, “Does he know all the answers?”, after twenty-five years on the show… you know… sixty questions per night. I think he does know a lot.
But if he did not have the cards in front of him, he may not be nearly as impressive as he seems to be.
MN: After the disgraceful exit of our previous Attorney General, your office has been refreshingly quiet. Can you tell me what sort of important issues your office is currently involved in?
RC: Sure, and in fact, let me just say that I really appreciated your efforts to hold people accountable in state government….
MN: Thank you.
RC: You did help create change here. You know, I obviously wasn’t anticipating running for Attorney General, or anticipating [Marc Dann’s] resignation and a special election. When this happened, I realized that I should make an effort because I was suited to the job. And I believe that I am that.
Let me talk about two different things. First, what you described, which is us reducing the volume and maybe reducing the interest in some aspects of the office. We have tried to be very careful, very meticulous, in setting up our administration and the process of the office. I think this is something that was very much lacking before. And I brought some of the people who helped me run the treasury, where, of course, you have to be very meticulous accounting for every penny. And all of that, I believe, is in very good hands.
We beefed up the internal audit section. We found a number of ways of improving the office and avoiding problems, which is an important thing to do.
Second, in terms of personnel, they had so much, so many adventures in terms of personnel, so many stories, so many scandals. And one of the things I told my people from the very beginning was, we were going to bore the press corps to death. I told them we are going to do things carefully; we are going to do things in a straightforward way, but in the end, I assume it has become much less interesting to people, as is true of most offices in state government. And I believe we are succeeding in that.
But, on the positive side of that, in terms of what we are stressing… I come from the Treasury and I bring the interests that I had there. And I think they are very well suited to the Ohio Attorney General’s office- (such as)- the whole set of financial security issues for Ohioans.
And, you know, we are in a recession right now and people are having a lot of trouble with credit card bills and mortgages. We work with those issues every single day. And we now have, you know, much more serious tools for protecting people against being taken advantage of in the marketplace. This is something we stress we a lot.
I talked in the campaign, you may remember, about holding Wall Street accountable for their greed and the abuses there. We have very significant national lawsuits pending right now against AIG, against Freddie Mac, against Fannie Mae, and against Bank of America for the most recent Merrill Lynch transaction.
We are representing Ohio’s pension systems, and we are representing investors. And we want to make sure that to the extent possible, we get as much money back as possible from them and hold the people accountable who ultimately wrecked our economy.
On the law enforcement side, it has, since the early 1990s, become an increasingly important part of the office. I was fortunate, maybe lucky, to make very good appointments with the people I put in these positions. The police officer training academy, which had a lot of messes and some scandals, has combed out tremendously. And I think if you talk to sheriffs and police chiefs around the state, they are very pleased with the level of customer service they are getting there.
And BCI, which is our crime fighting arm which does so many investigations and undercover operations and analysis of evidence, DNA, background checks for state government employees and private parties in Ohio.
I think (the office) is clicking on all cylinders. I think we are back to the days of Betty Montgomery there, (when) I think it tended to operate quite well. And I think, believe and hope law enforcement feels that way about the job we are doing.
Those are some of our priorities in the office.
MN: Speaking of Betty Montgomery, is it constitutional to spend tobacco settlement money in the budget which was just signed into law by Governor Strickland?
RC: Yeah, and I think I have a different point of view on that than how other people do. Here is how I see it, OK. The lawsuit was originally against the tobacco companies, and the theory of the lawsuit was because they had marketed their product and developed their product in the way they did, the state government had to spend billions of dollars in unnecessary health care costs which could, and should, have been avoided.
To me, what that means is, that state government had to divert lots of other money into paying for health care costs caused by tobacco, which means the states really should have a lot of discretion and leeway over how they then spend that money when it comes back in, because it really came from all other corners of state government. I don’t think there was ever a requirement, nothing in the court decisions on it, which said it could only be spent on tobacco.
Now, having said that, I think it is a good idea to be spending a fair amount of money on tobacco prevention, because it clearly has very damaging effects on our population. It does drive up costs. It does effect state government and individual communities. And so, Ohio, for a number of years, did spend a significant amount of the money on tobacco prevention.
More recently, they have gone away from that, and I’m not sure I like that much. Although we do have other measures in place now. We do have a state ban on smoking in public places, which has been controversial, but clearly reduces the incidents of smoking. And they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on campaigns throughout all media through discourage smoking. We also have higher taxes on tobacco now than we had ten years ago, including at the federal level. So, I kind of understand why some of the emphasis has moved in other directions.
I would still like to see us mount a vigorous anti-tobacco effort at the state level, but that’s just some broader perspective on the whole issue.
MN: As most baby boomers remember, lead paint is high quality, durable, and attractive paint. What do you think about nuisance lawsuits about lead paint, and when can I expect to see lead paint back on store shelves?
RC: HA HA. Well, I don’t think you are ever going to see lead paint back on the store shelves. Both on the state level and federal level, there was a legislative determination that lead paint was dangerous, especially to children. It was pretty pervasive in buildings throughout our society, and so I continue to agree with the ongoing efforts- federal, state, and local- to abate the continuing presence of lead paint as much as possible. Those efforts have actually been quite successful; they have systematically reduced the amount of exposure when they run tests in communities for potential exposure to lead paint.
But, Ohio, under my predecessor, decided to attack the problem in a different way. They brought a lawsuit- a sort of an unwieldy lawsuit under the public nuisance laws- against a group of companies that, over the years, had sold lead paint at a time when it was entirely legal to sell it, at a time when it was not obvious that it had side effects which have since become clear.
There were a number of local governments and one other state- Rhode Island- that had pursued such lawsuits as well. When I came into office, the vast majority of those- in fact, all but one- had been dismissed. Rhode Island had gone in one direction originally and the verdict had been overturned by the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
But I made the decision- it was one of the tougher decisions I have made to date- that we would dismiss the Ohio lawsuit. Not every problem can be solved by a lawsuit, and that is what we determined there. And that we continue to work on the abatement programs a lot of the cities have and try to address the problem in a different way.
Some people will disagree with that decision, but I thought it was our best judgment about the right way to proceed with this problem.
MN: I have read mixed things about your approach to our 2nd Amendment freedoms, which are also reinforced in Ohio’s constitution. Is gun ownership an individual right or a collective right? You have supported the Brady bill, so have you had a chance of heart?
RC: Well, that was a number of years ago.
But it is an individual right, and it goes back to Hobbes and Locke, as I said. It is the right of self-preservation and the right to security in the home and for your family. The US Supreme Court confronted that issue two years ago in the Heller case and determined, I think correctly, that it is an individual right. But that case only involved the District of Columbia, so now there are further cases, as you probably know, that are coming up through the courts to determine whether that right will be incorporated against the states. There was a recent decision by the 2nd Circuit in the Northeast, and the 7th Circuit in the Midwest. And most recently in the 7th Circuit case, which is being appealed to the United State Supreme Court, we joined a brief authored by the state of Texas arguing that this is an individual right which should be incorporated. That is maybe the most significant issue pending right now in the 2nd Amendment area.
MN: So you would not support an Assault Weapons ban?
MN: So, just how strongly do you support this right?
RC: It is a strong right, affirmed in the US and Ohio constitutions. We also, you may be aware, that Ohio has some statewide laws which have been challenged in courts throughout Ohio by cities with local ordinances seeking to deviate from the uniform state law. We are defending the uniform state law against those ordinances, and those cases are proceeding now- a number of those- as well.
So the action in state government right now is on those two matters. There is also an issue in my office that there were some agents who had been armed by my elected predecessor and disarmed by my immediate predecessor. We reviewed that situation, and decided that we would arm them. Once again, those are the areas where I have been involved in (with the gun issue) since becoming Attorney General.
MN: On a personal level, are you pro-life or pro-choice?
RC: I’m pro choice.
MN: To what extent? Do you support late term abortion?
RC: Well, in my office, as you know, my job is to enforce the law, regardless of what my views may be. Earlier this year, we had a case in the Ohio Supreme Court having to interpret what Ohio law says on RU-486 and its use. We, as we are required to do, played that issue straight, and argued that case and believe that probably the pro-life side of the debate would be satisfied with the result and the pro-choice side would be dissatisfied with the result. We thought that’s what the law said; we thought our job is to uphold the law, and that case is in continuing in Federal court now. And there are other issues going on there as well.
But our job is to be a neutral arbiter and umpire that upholds Ohio’s state laws passed by our legislature.
MN: You seem to have a rather conservative legal philosophy. Doesn’t that upset base of your party?
RC: You know, there are times where people would like me to do whatever I want to do. And I don’t have the leeway.
Ohio law is what I’m sworn to uphold and enforce and the chips have to fall where they may. So, it doesn’t trouble me, and it my job as I see it, and I’m going to continue to do it. And I hope that people will feel that we are doing a good job at it.
MN: What is your favorite type of pizza?
MN: Thank you for your time, Attorney General Cordray.