Georgia's Top Lawyer
Q&A With Attorney General Sam Olens
Sam Olens was the personification of local government and Metro Atlanta regional planning. He served on the Cobb County Board of Com-missioners from 1999 through March 2010, the last eight years as chairman. He chaired the Atlanta Regional Commission from 2004 to 2009 and was vice chair of the Metro North Georgia Water Planning District from 2005 to 2010.
“There were so many nights that I went home and read up on topics like stormwater reclamation,” Olens says. “I spent a lot of time on stormwater.”
He had to. It was part of the jobs, his old jobs.
In January 2011, Olens embarked on the next phase of his political career when he took office as the first Republican to be elected Georgia’s attorney general. An Emory-educated attorney who practiced infrequently while managing the affairs of one of Georgia’s wealthiest and most populous counties, he is now the state’s highest-ranking lawyer.
As Olens was completing his first year as attorney general, he had a conversation with Georgia Trend in his office across the street from the Gold Dome about, among other things, the immigration issue, healthcare reform, his efforts to rewrite Georgia’s sunshine laws and losing his parents. Following are edited highlights of the interview.
GT: You had to grow up pretty quickly, didn’t you?
OLENS: My mom died when I was five, my dad when I was 12. After Mom died, we moved from Florida to south Jersey, to be with an aunt and uncle. My uncle died within two years of Dad. From that point, I was raised through high school by my aunt, who shortly thereafter was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. So, in contrast to friends who lose a parent, and it’s the first loss in their family, I had that experience young in life, so at times you become – you develop a thick eggshell from the experience. On the other hand, the positive effect, I guess, is I have overtly tried to have family time as a result, spend time with the kids. We went to Disney for three days over the holiday. It shocked the heck out of me that the kids wanted to go to Disney. They’re 19 and 21.
GT: You were a candidate from Metro Atlanta, from urban Georgia. How did you get past that with rural voters?
OLENS: We spent a lot of time in rural Georgia during the campaign, so that folks who were quick to say, “You’re the metro candidate,” would see me regularly in their part of the state. Even so, a lot of times people will see you during a campaign and they’ll say, “It’s great that you’re here, but we won’t see you for another four years.” But this past year as attorney general I’ve been to Valdosta five times. I’ve been to the Savannah area a bunch, Augusta, Thomasville, Muscogee County. I think its essential that you show folks you care and you understand the state is not just the Metro Atlanta region. I think reaching out to the state as a whole has paid big dividends.
GT: What can you say about making the leap from local government to statewide constitutional office?
OLENS: I think a lot of folks totally underestimate what it takes to be a competent local elected official, and I learned that, too, during the campaign when people would say, “So, you were a county commission chair.” Yeah, I was over a $700-million budget, I was over 5,000 employees. We had a lot of issues, a lot of law enforcement. One of the great training tools of having been in local government is the diversity and variety, so you’re used to going from issue to issue, you’re used to going from water reclamation plans to public safety. The issues in general are more exciting in this office, you know – defending state law, the water wars with Alabama and Florida, the redistricting process. Those are juicier issues to be involved in, but no less important than those that apply to local government.
GT: What are your thoughts about former Attorney General Thurbert Baker and your transition to this office?
OLENS: Thurbert is a gentleman in the truest sense of the word, and he clearly had a quieter side to him. But no one ever questioned his integrity or his desire to do well for the citizens of our state. He was a pro-business AG and he was super for me in the post-election period before I took office. We had a great transition. I met with all the division heads; they prepared countless volumes of paper for me. I had the opportunity to learn a lot about this office and the employees before being sworn in, so I was able to hit the ground running, knowing that the same day you’re sworn in the legislature starts. And I spend a lot of time across the street, so I have to give Thurbert a lot of credit for making it such a smooth transition.
GT: What are you doing differently than AG Baker?
OLENS: For one thing, we have a legislative agenda and he seldom did. I’m trying to work much more proactively with the legislature, as well as our clients [state government agencies, the governor, etc.], because if we’re gonna be defending legislation that’s approved across the street, I’d like our folks to have a better opportunity to wordsmith some of it. I’m probably more apt to attend public functions. Also, when I was in office about two months, the speaker [David Ralston] called me up to the well of the House and said, “Sam, the AJC [Atlanta Journal-Constitution] gave you good press because you’ve had more press releases in like six weeks than your predecessor did in a year.” It’s true, though. The amount of information we’re sharing is phenomenal.
GT: Overhauling the state’s sunshine laws has been one of your top agenda items since the campaign trail. Talk about what’s wrong with the laws and what you hope to accomplish.
OLENS: Through my 12 years in office, I have a good idea of where they work and where they don’t. We can’t expect local elected officials or the public to understand the law the way it’s currently written. It’s not English. Also, the enforcement mechanisms are wholly insufficient. For this office to take action, we’re limited to a criminal warrant. So one of the things we’re trying to do, other than increasing the potential fine, is to give this office the option of either civil or criminal enforcement. The goal is to provide some common sense solutions to make things easier for local government while at the same time making things more transparent for the public, so they can have the open records they deserve to have in a timely manner. It’s been a great pro-cess with all the stakeholders, from the press, to ACCG [Asso-ciation County Commissioners of Georgia], GMA [Georgia Municipal Association], GSBA [Georgia School Boards Asso-ciation], GHA [Georgia Hos-pitals Association], the First Amendment Foundation, literally anyone and everyone interested in this area. We’ve wanted to hear from [them] all the things they think should be in the rewrite. One of the things we did in the rewrite is, there never was a preamble for the open records act, so now it specifically says the intent is to give the public information – that, when in doubt, give the information. It’s sort of amazing that it wasn’t in the original version.
GT: By the time this article is published, the fate of the overhaul may already have been realized. But what are your expectations? Is this a tough sell to the legislature?
OLENS: There are folks that clearly would like to either substantially gut or substantially strengthen the legislation more. It’s a huge issue, it’s a difficult issue, it’s major legislation, and it’s my hope it gets passed this session. I’m certainly committed. But it’s one of those bills similar to an ethics legislation, something people are fearful of getting into because you don’t know what the sausage looks like at the end. So we’ve tried to solve as many potential problems on the front end to make it easier for the legislators across the street to pass the bill in a timely manner.
GT: March is a critical month for some issues you’ve identified as top priorities, such as healthcare and immigration. Both of these will be taken up in a federal setting, with President Obama’s healthcare reform law scheduled for a U.S. Supreme Court hearing.
OLENS: I would prefer that the whole law be stricken, so we were fortunate that the Court agreed to take up our major issues. It’s a historic argument. They’re giving it five and a half hours. There hasn’t been an oral argument that long in the Supreme Court since the Civil War. It includes issues such as the Com-merce Clause that generally get decided by the Court once a generation. It is a historic argument. Look, there’s no question to me that healthcare reform is needed in our country, from a service delivery as well as a financial perspective. So the answer isn’t throwing out the president’s healthcare bill and making believe there isn’t a problem. There is a problem, and we need to be prepared to solve it the day after the Supreme Court potentially rules that the bill is unconstitutional.
GT: Some parts of Georgia’s immigration law (HB 87) have been blocked, so the state has appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. But what does it say about national immigration policy when there are millions of undocumented immigrants in this country?
OLENS: It says it’s broken. It tells me that this is one of the numerous areas where the federal government is dysfunctional, and it tells me that before a lot of other things can occur we ought to have a secure border. I’m mindful that not everyone who crosses that border is Hispanic, that there are individuals that cross who seek to harm our country – in addition to those who come here for economic reasons. The federal government has not gotten it together for comprehensive immigration reform, and that’s part of the reason Congress is held in such low esteem these days – because gridlock is primary and the resolution of issues seems to be on the side-burner. But I look forward to the [Alabama immigration law] argument in the 11th Circuit on March 1st. Concurrently, there’s the Arizona immigration case that was just accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court, and I presume that decision will have an effect on all the states, including Georgia.
GT: Your office is involved in highly politicized issues that become legal issues – redistricting in Georgia, for example, and healthcare reform. Is it even possible to take politics out of the equation?
OLENS: Look, redistricting is political, no question. But 95 percent of the issues we deal with are nonpartisan. Day in, day out, what we do is defend state law, not Republican law or Democrat law, but state law. The major legislation we worked on last year was sex trafficking. This year we’re working on the sunshine laws. When you’re in a campaign, you’re political. Once you win the election, you sit down and do the job and represent the state.
GT: You’ve got a year under your belt as AG. What would you like to do differently in this office?
OLENS: I’d like to be in court more. I’d like to be engaged in litigation, get in the courtroom more than I did the first year. And I would like to improve efficiency, but the finances of the office adversely affect our ability to make some needed change. For example, if I had more in-house lawyers I could actually save the state some significant money. Pretty much every budget year, we lose positions, but while my budget goes down the overall cost to the state goes up, and it doesn’t make fiscal sense. We’re forced to hire more outside counsel than I’d like, and that’s very expensive. Dollars come out of other agencies for that, and someone thinks it makes fiscal sense, but it doesn’t. We have 120 to 125 lawyers in-house. North Carolina has about three times more lawyers than us, with a smaller state population. If I had 20 more lawyers I could save the state millions of dollars a year.
GT: The previous four AGs served an average of 16 years each. Can you imagine that kind of longevity for yourself?
OLENS: I don’t see it. For one thing, the pension that existed for prior AGs no longer exists for state employees. It’s been totally changed, and it had to be, for fiscal reasons. So, in my opinion, that will make it exceedingly difficult for future constitutional officers to serve as many years. That may be a good thing, because we’re not supposed to be here for life, and there’s value in new blood and new ideas. At some point, I have to look my wife in the face and be able to support our retirement, so from a retirement perspective, this isn’t really an option. Now, having said that, I certainly want to serve more than one term. It’s not like I’m looking to leave. I love my job.