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The ‘law-and-order’ absurdity of the GOP’s primary for attorney general 

Michael Schaus
Michael Schaus
Opinion
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Lady Justice perched atop the Nevada Supreme Court building

If nothing else, at least the Republican primary debate for attorney general gives us a chance to talk about what’s wrong with blindly “backing the blue” while posturing as an advocate for limited government.

The recent debate between attorney general hopefuls Tisha Black and Sigal Chattah was largely an unremarkable and uninformative affair. Right off the bat, both candidates incorrectly described Nevada’s statutory protection of a woman’s access to abortion as a constitutional amendment — even after host Sam Shad attempted to fact-check in real time. And later in the debate, Chattah tried to portray her opponent as a closet Sisolak supporter and “progressive plant” by pointing out political contributions made to Democrats by Black’s businesses. 

In short, the half hour debate was little more than the type of petty political jabbing and partisan grandstanding one might expect during a tense primary contest. 

However, there was one exchange between the two Republican contenders for the position of Nevada’s “top cop” that actually merits a bit more discussion — primarily because it touched on a relentless tendency among Republicans to conflate being “tough on crime” with unconditional allegiance to the law enforcement community.  

During the recent debate, Black attacked Chattah’s two-decade career as a criminal defense attorney — saying that “It's unimaginable you would spend 20 years… undermining the police and wasting taxpayers’ money, and then turn around and say you want to be the attorney general.”

Chattah quickly defended her chosen profession by pointing out “everybody has a Sixth Amendment right to counsel, and to undermine defense attorneys is a huge problem…” 

Say what you will about Chattah’s political beliefs or whether she should be the state’s attorney general, but on that particular issue she’s not wrong. Defending individuals in criminal cases isn’t only a critical part of protecting constitutional rights, it’s also a perspective that is lamentably underrepresented in much of the criminal justice system

Maybe Black truly believes Chattah’s experience as a defense lawyer is actually worthy of disqualification for the position of attorney general — or maybe she simply believes she can undermine her opponent’s support among Republican primary voters by throwing around pejoratives such as “soft on crime.” Either way, her line of reasoning delivers a sad commentary on the hostile way criminal justice reform has so often been received by much of the party’s base. 

Of course, none of this is to say that Chattah is, herself, a serious criminal justice reformer. She has thrown her own share of red meat to law-and-order Republican voters by villainizing attempts to end qualified immunity as well as a host of other reforms. Indeed, much of Chattah’s campaign rhetoric has been the sort of incendiary firebrand fodder that frustrates progress on much-needed justice issues. In an early campaign video in 2021, she even promised her supporters that she would take progressive Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar to court for “defunding our police.” (On what grounds she would do so as Nevada’s attorney general was, of course, not explained in the video.) 

Nonetheless, Black’s assertion that defense lawyers have somehow “undermined the men and women” in law enforcement represents the worst kind of reflexive and two-dimensional “tough on crime” political pandering that often (and regrettably) resonates with large numbers of her party. 

Such political deference to law enforcement has always been a perplexing blind spot for Republican “conservatives” who claim to staunchly oppose government overreach. After all, much of conservatism has, at least in principle, been rooted in a skepticism of the powers conferred upon government agencies and institutional bureaucrats. The fact that some of those government actors happen to be given a badge and a gun shouldn’t magically alleviate concerns about the potential for the abuse of power… it should amplify it

One would think a political movement that claims to be champions of “individual rights” would understand the value of scrutinizing such armed enforcers of the law — and yet, as is evidenced by the rhetoric in the Republican primary race for attorney general, there is clearly a deficit of such scrutiny within today’s GOP. 

If the party ever expects to be taken seriously as a mechanism for limiting the expansion and abuses of government power, that deficit is one of many that must first be reconciled. 

Michael Schaus is a communications and branding consultant based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He is the former communications director for Nevada Policy Research Institute and has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary as a columnist, political humorist, and radio talk show host. Follow him at SchausCreative.com or on Twitter at @schausmichael.

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