Robert C. Stephens: Cooper can’t have it both ways

November 25, 2013 

Your Nov. 10 editorial “Cooper’s trials” stated that Attorney General Roy Cooper is right to object to laws that, in the N&O’s view, ill-serve the public. The editorial further stated that “the governor appears to be confused about who Cooper’s client is. He doesn’t represent the best interests of Republicans. He represents the best interests of North Carolina.” Both statements are incorrect and misleading interpretations of the duties of the attorney general.

The attorney general holds a unique office as the state’s attorney. The State of North Carolina is his only client. His duty is to defend the state when the state is sued. As an attorney, he is also subject to the profession’s Rules of Professional Conduct. Chief among these rules is the attorney’s duty to zealously represent his client.

In your typical private law firm, a managing partner heads the firm. No attorney would ever express public doubts about pending litigation his firm is involved in. It does a tremendous disservice to the client, and it certainly wouldn’t be considered zealous representation.

However, this is what Cooper has chosen to do. He has made comments attacking the very legislation his office is defending. Some parties have even quoted the attorney general in their lawsuits against the state.

Incredibly, The N&O doesn’t believe that Cooper is responsible for his comments. In your view, it’s the General Assembly’s fault. Lawmakers had the audacity to pass laws Cooper disagrees with, so now he’s justified in criticizing those laws and criticizing his client for passing them.

Cooper has put himself in jeopardy of violating his duty to his client and the Rules of Professional Conduct. Many believe Cooper has let political ambition override his responsibilities as the state’s attorney. He has shown that when an opportunity presents itself, it is Candidate Cooper, not Attorney General Cooper, who addresses the cameras.

The attorney general’s duty is not to determine which legislation “is in the best interest of North Carolina.” His duty is to defend the will of the people as expressed through their duly elected representatives. He can’t relinquish this responsibility and actively undermine the state’s case when he finds it politically expedient to do so.

The N&O has categorized Cooper’s commenting as a simple disagreement with the legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory. It’s a bigger deal than that. While the position of attorney general is an elected position, it comes with duties above and beyond that of politics. When you’re the state’s lawyer, you’re a lawyer first and a politician second.

Cooper can fulfill his duties to his client or he can become a full-time candidate for governor. Because of the nature of his job, he can’t have it both ways.

The people of this state, along with their duly elected representatives, should be able to trust that their interests are being defended to the fullest extent when the state’s laws are challenged.

Robert C. Stephens

General Counsel, Office of the Governor of North Carolina


The length limit was waived to permit a fuller response to the editorial.

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