Virginia’s Activist Attorney-General: Man on a Mission

December 28, 2010

By Alex Altman, TIME Magazine

It takes a canny politician to make his name picking fights that are always someone else’s fault. And Ken Cuccinelli is not even a politician, entirely.

Since taking office in January, Virginia’s new attorney general has sued the EPA over its plan to regulate greenhouse gases, opined that Virginia can regulate first-trimester abortion facilities as it can hospitals, advised that the state’s public colleges lack authority to bar discrimination against gays and lesbians, tweaked the state seal to cover the bare breast of the Roman goddess Virtus and subpoenaed the University of Virginia to probe for evidence that a former professor manipulated climate-science research. (Read “Person of the Year Runner-Up: The Tea Party.”)

On Dec. 13, he notched a capstone victory to a frenetic freshman year when a Richmond federal judge ruled that the health-care reform law’s individual mandate was unconstitutional, upholding a suit Cuccinelli filed before the ink on the bill had dried. Cuccinelli hailed the judgment as a “shot heard ’round the world,” but was already fixing his sights on a new target: a constitutional amendment that would allow a federal law or regulation to be nullified if the legislature of two-thirds of states support its repeal.

This series of splashy brawls has sparked Cuccinelli’s meteoric ascent from little-known lawmaker to the constellation of national conservative stars. “He’s the complete package,” says Richard Viguerie, a Virginia-based eminence grise of the conservative movement. “He’s not just a social conservative or an economic conservative. He’s willing to blaze new paths and buck his party. That’s the test of true leadership.”

That’s also why opponents have issued withering indictments of his activist tenure, blasting him as a culture warrior more interested in stymieing progressive policies or establishing himself as a boldface name than he is in carrying out the duties of his office. But Cuccinelli says his litany of legal battles merely fulfills his oath as the commonwealth’s top lawyer. “My predecessors have had big, ambitious legislative agendas, and I just haven’t,” he says. Take the suit against the EPA, his first against the federal government. “They nakedly violated their own rules in that whole process, and we don’t think they abided by the minimum standards of the law,” he says. “If they don’t go about it in that way, there’s no suit.” The judgment that colleges can’t protect against antigay discrimination — which Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell overruled amid a frenzied backlash — came after Cuccinelli was asked to issue an opinion on the matter. The health care law, he said at a Sept. 12 Tea Party rally, is an affront to American liberty perpetrated by an Administration with less respect for the concept than King George. “It’s not so much that they wanted to trample [the Constitution],” Cuccinelli says of the health-care law’s backers. “It’s that they didn’t care.”

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