by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
'The most consequential job in government is the attorney general's job,' Bob Ferguson says with conviction.
Ferguson, who just scored a major victory with a successful lawsuit to block Donald Trump's Muslim ban, sat down with the SGN in his Seattle office to talk about his work. With him he had Colleen Melody, head of his civil rights unit.
In an NPR profile on Ferguson, veteran political operative Christian Sinderman, who worked on Ferguson's re-election campaign, compared the attorney general to Harry Potter.
'You know there's a Harry Potter-like quality of Bob Ferguson: the glasses, the serious intent and the sense of almost destiny in standing up for what's right and the little guy,' Sinderman said.
Asked if he felt like he was confronting the Dark Lord, Ferguson laughed.
'I just feel like we're doing our job,' he replied. 'When we met with the staff to talk about that lawsuit, we talked about the law. That's what the conversation is always about.
'The outpouring of support for that case took us a bit by surprise,' Ferguson continued, 'but it reinforced my belief that the most important office - the most consequential office - is the attorney general's office.'
Protecting LGBT rights
Besides taking on Trump's executive order, one of Ferguson's other high-profile victories was suing a Richland florist who refused services to a Gay couple.
'We care very deeply about civil rights issues,' Ferguson says. 'We expect the team to be aggressive.
'In the moment, and looking at the new administration, protecting trans people is a priority. We have acted with a sense of urgency. We're leading other states with amicus briefs [in the Gavin Grimm case].'
If the anti-Trans initiative I-1552 makes it to the November ballot and passes, it will likely be challenged in court. Asked if he saw constitutional grounds to refuse to defend the measure in court, Ferguson looked sad.
'Would I be comfortable defending it? No. Would it be my job? Yes,' Ferguson answered.
'And it's ironic I have to say that, because in my prior practice I litigated challenges to Tim Eyman initiatives, but I won't express opinions about the constitutionality of initiatives. I have to be careful.'
'Just because the Trump administration has done an about-face on Title VII and Title IX doesn't mean that federal law doesn't protect trans people,' Melody interjected.
'Until a federal court tells us otherwise, our position is that Title VII and Tile IX do protect trans people. If 1552 changes state law, we'll have to see what courts say about federal law.'
Building a civil rights unit from scratch
Melody, head of Ferguson's civil rights division, was hired a little over two years ago specifically to lead civil rights litigation. She previously worked for the federal Department of Justice.
'Our civil rights team is relatively new,' Ferguson explains. 'In fact, before Colleen, we didn't have one. And most states don't have a civil rights division. Colleen was the first. And now we have five attorneys in the unit.'
A sixth attorney will soon join the civil rights team, which is named the Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit in honor of the late Wing Luke (1925-1965), assistant attorney general and later Seattle City Councilmember.
In the past, Ferguson continued, the attorney general's office lacked the resources to fulfill its mission of 'affirmative litigation on behalf of the people,' but he was determined to solve the problem without having to beg the legislature for more tax money.
Ferguson funded his civil rights unit through strategic use of money his office obtained in lawsuits.
'When we win a suit,' Ferguson explained, 'the first priority is restitution to the consumers. Then, after the consumer is made whole, the remaining funds are reinvested in the office.
'That's how we funded the civil rights unit, from funds recovered from bad actors. No tax dollars are involved at all; it's all paid for by bad actors. And we're taking in more dollars than before, because now we have a larger staff of attorneys working on civil rights cases.
'It's a pretty practical approach,' Ferguson smiled.
Civil rights complaints to the attorney general's office based on sexual orientation or gender identity are going up, Melody said.
'Public accommodations and employment are the major complaints to our office,' she noted. 'Housing is the number one complaint to the Human Rights Commission.
'There are also health care issues for trans people, and there we share authority with the insurance commissioner.'
What happens if you have a complaint?
Civil rights complaints can be filed either with the state Human Rights Commission, or directly with the attorney general's office. The Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit can be contacted at email@example.com or at (844) 323-3864.
'When people contact us, we have a screening process,' Melody explains. 'The first question is, 'Is it illegal?' Some things can be unfair but not illegal.
'Next we'd determine if we needed to refer the matter to another agency. In the case of trans students, for example, we might refer them to the superintendent of public instruction. We work very closely with them.'
The office would try to settle the case without going to court, but if that proves impossible, Melody continued, then Ferguson and his staff attorneys would decide on legal strategy.
'So our response [to a complaint] could range from 'not illegal' to 'make a federal case out of it,' Melody concluded.
'Literally - a federal case!' Ferguson interjected. 'We do have courts to limit the actions of the president.'
As the SGN goes to press on March 9, Ferguson's office announced it would ask the federal judge who blocked the original Trump Muslim ban to reaffirm that his order also applies to the latest version. New York and Oregon joined Washington. Hawaii sued to block the new executive order on March 8.
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