February 25, 2018

Picking the Best Candidate for Utah Attorney General

UTTomorrow, the Republican Party will forward three names to Governor Gary Herbert who will appoint one of them as Utah Attorney General. All have great qualities, but only one of them has the right balance to manage the office, restore the public trust, and win reelection next year against a vigorous Democratic challenge for the office. I look through the pros and cons of each candidate below and give my choice for the appointment.


In the short time since John Swallow’s resignation from the office of the Utah Attorney General, a number of qualified individuals have put their names forward for the Governor’s appointment. Each would bring unique set of qualities and skills, and they should all be lauded for their willingness to serve. Utah has been damaged by the scandals of Swallow and his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff, and there is a widespread perception of the public that the office has been abused by its chief officer for personal gain.

Its time to pick a leader that can not only restore the public trust, but will also provide steady leadership for years to come. The person appointed will serve for only a year before they must face reelection in 2014, requiring some measure of campaign work. While some have criticized this as a potential hindrance to the work of the Attorney General’s office, it should be recognized by all sides that the best campaign for reelection will be a demonstration of ability to manage the office and restore the morale of the staff attorneys employed there.

Additionally, as Bob Smith said well, campaigning is an important part of democracy. An elected leader should spend time talking with and listening to voters. He is a public servant and should be responsive to the public. An appointee who will not seek reelection will have no incentive to spend time with the people. Further, the appointee without any intention to seek reelection would lack the ability to introduce long-term changes, policies, and reforms in the Utah Attorney General office.

He would be a lame duck.

The last thing we need in any government office, especially one that has been plagued by scandal, is a lame duck, an elected official without clout or authority.

This is why I believe that when the Governor makes his selection, he should pick a person who has the skills, from day one, to manage the Utah Attorney General office, has the ability to win reelection in 2014, and can be expected to provide ethical, competent, and long term leadership in an office that has now, over the course of the last two years, seen three different heads, two of which have been and are under criminal investigation.


Pros and Cons of Each Candidate for Utah Attorney General

  • Bob SmithBob Smith: PROS: Smith is an obviously cerebral attorney, an academic who graduated in the top of the class for both of his graduate degrees and would come to the office with a history of solid legal practice. CONS: While not a prosecutor, it’s hard to find negatives about Smith, except that he is not a known quantity in Utah politics, having never faced a public constituency.
  • Bret RawsonBret Rawson: PROS: New to Utah politics and undoubtedly full of potential. He comes with broad experience, including that of a part-time police officer and as general counsel to the Fraternal Order of Police (“FOP”), the police union. He is impressive.  CONS: Rawson has received a large donation from the FOP, $20,000, an enormous amount for a two-week campaign.
  • Brian TarbetUtah Attorney General: Brian TarbetPROS: A distinguished service record in the military, Tarbet is considered to be a man of integrity, in spite of his serving as general counsel under Swallow. He also can be predicted to provide a steady hand and a trustworthy manager until the 2014 election. CONS: Despite a seven month investigation into his boss, Swallow, Tarbet failed to issue a litigation hold to preserve documents in the Utah Attorney General Office. Further, I do not believe Tarbet will seek  reelection in 2014, and I feel that this is a mistake, creating a lame duck management and potentially delivering the office to Democrats in 2014.
  • Michael WilkinsMichael WilkinsPROS: A former Utah Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice, Wilkins has the most impressive resume of the Utah Attorney General hopefuls, and his careful and well-formed answers during the debate impressed me. CONS: Wilkins will not seek reelection in 2014, and I find this to be unfortunate given Wilkins considerable ability. The Utah Attorney General office needs long-term leadership, and Wilkins would be a great leader in the long haul, but I believe ineffective in the short-term.
  • Utah Attorney General, Michelle Mumford

    Michelle Mumford

    Michelle MumfordPROS: Utah Republican Party Secretary, former Wall Street attorney, 10th Circuit Clerk, and currently an assistant dean at BYU Law School, Mumford has a wide range of experience and is well-known by the Republican State Central Committee. She has been strident in her advocacy, and that is both admirable and needed.  CONS: Some have observed that  Mumford is married to Marcus Mumford, who is defending at least one of the Swallow accusers. I don’t find this problematic, but I do think that Mumford is light on managerial experience, especially relative to other candidates.

  • Scott Burns

    Scott Burns

    Scott Burns:PROS: Burns has the most prosecutor experience with sixteen years as a prosecutor before going to Washington to serve in the White House. CONS: Despite his experience, Burns has been out of Utah for ten years, and during the debate on Wednesday night I found his frequent name dropping and lack of substantive answers off-putting. Burns may meet the residency requirement for eligibility, but barely. He has also lost two statewide campaigns to Democrats, a factor that will be considered next year when the Democrats make their most serious effort to win the office in over a decade.

  • Sean ReyesPROS: Reyes has the advantage over his opponents of having run a statewide campaign for Utah Attorney General last year. He is well liked in and out of the party, is an accomplished attorney, demonstrates polish and preparation in interviews and debates, has given a thorough set of plans and priorities for his administration of the office (arguably, the only candidate with such depth of plans), and has already been fully vetted for any kind of conflicts of interest or ethics problems. CONS: Reyes doesn’t have Wilkins’ long years on the bench, Burns’ prosecution experience, Mumford’s broad range, or Smith’s academic credentials.

Sean Reyes, Utah Attorney GeneralMy Choice for Utah Attorney General: Sean Reyes

Reyes is an attorney well-known, well liked, and well-respected by the Utah legal community, not a politician with a thick file of donors and obligations. (Publius Online bio here).

In recognition of his accomplishment, the American Bar Association awarded Reyes National Outstanding Young Lawyer of the Year, the first such recipient. The same year, the Utah Bar Association also gave its nod and awarded Reyes the Young Lawyer of the Year in recognition for his service and work in the legal community.  (Reyes accolades and awards are many, especially considering he still has all of his hair. You can find a more thorough list here).

Meanwhile, Reyes had quickly climbed to partnership of what was then the largest law firm in Utah, demonstrating an ability to lead and manage other attorneys in addition to articulate advocacy in court. With an AV rating and ranked for five years in the rarefied air of Utah Legal Elite, Reyes has not only demonstrated a high degree of legal competency, but recognition by his peers, as well.

Reyes is the best choice for the next Utah Attorney General, and even if Governor Herbert doesn’t appoint him to the vacant office, Utah should select him in 2014 to lead the Office of the Utah Attorney General. Reyes is articulate, intelligent, able, and well prepared. From early in his career, he has provided leadership in every capacity available to him, building relationships and demonstrating excellent legal, ethical, and moral judgement through out.

Perhaps more than necessary, there has been some discussion about the possibility that Governor Herbert could appoint an individual who would not seek election in 2014. The argument is that this would prevent the appointment of a person who would be distracted by fundraising and campaigning. While the last two individuals who have sat in the Attorney General’s office spent a large portion of their time campaigning, and indeed, it was campaign malfeasance that appears to have precipitated Swallows resignation. However, appointing a person who is not accountable to the people and who the staff of the office cannot expect to hold office for more than a year is as good as placing a caretaker or placeholder in the office.

About Daniel Burton

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. You can follow him on his blog PubliusOnline.com where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas. He is active on social media, Republican politics, and has been named to PoliticIt’s list of the “Top-50 Utah Political Opinion Leaders” on Twitter. You can reach him directly at dan.burton@gmail.com

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