Sep 19, 2022 - News

Minnesota AG rivals clash over size and scope of criminal division

jim schultz and keith ellison
Jim Schultz and Keith Ellison. Photos: The Schultz Campaign/Minnesota Attorney General's Office

The Minnesota attorney general's tiny criminal division has become a big talking point in the competitive race over the seat.

What's happening: Republican attorney general candidate Jim Schultz has made his pledge to dramatically increase the size of the unit a centerpiece of his campaign's public safety plan.

  • DFL incumbent Keith Ellison says he also wants to boost the team, which grew from one to three full-time prosecutors during his first term, but says Schultz's pitch is unrealistic.

The big picture: The debate over the division's size and scope underscores the role crime and public safety issues are playing in one of the year's most competitive races.

Reality check: The vast majority of criminal cases in Minnesota are, by law, prosecuted by city and county attorneys or the U.S. attorneys office, not the attorney general.

  • As the state's top legal officer, the attorney general is responsible for enforcing consumer protection and antitrust laws, regulating charities and representing the state in federal court.

Yes, but: The AG’s criminal division does help counties with criminal cases and appeals at the request of local officials.

  • While its role in the Derek Chauvin and Kimberly Potter prosecutions garnered major attention, most of the requests come from small county attorney offices in Greater Minnesota that don't have the manpower or expertise to prosecute on serious or complex crimes.

The issue: Both Ellison and Schultz say the current demand for aid from local prosecutors is more than the office can handle. But the rivals don't agree on the ideal size for the office.

Schultz says "dozens" of lawyers are needed to address the "serious crime issues in our state."

  • He told Axios that while additional funding "would be nice," he'd "reallocate resources from other divisions" to boost criminal prosecutor manpower if funding wasn't available.

Ellison says he needs just nine more heads to meet local prosecutors' needs. He argues that beefing up the section beyond that would have diminishing returns on investments and potentially take away from other important work.

  • "Yes, we are getting more requests than we can fulfill," he told Axios. "But we're not getting dozens and dozens more."

Situational awareness: In February, the Minnesota County Attorneys Association wrote in a letter to lawmakers that Ellison's request for just seven more attorneys would allow the AG "to adequately respond to County Attorneys’ requests in these difficult cases."

Flashback: The criminal division, and the AG's office as a whole, was much bigger in the 1990s. In 1998, it employed 260 attorneys, including 12 full-time prosecutors.

  • Today, the total staff is about 340. About 150 of those are line attorneys. Just three work as criminal prosecutors full time.

The catch: The Legislature hasn't shown an interest in boosting the office's funding — Ellison's proposal to increase the criminal division to nine got the cold shoulder from the GOP-controlled Senate last year.

  • State laws directing the AG to fulfill other consumer protection and oversight duties could make it difficult to cut or shift significant resources from those divisions without additional state funds.

Between the lines: The tiff over criminal division staffing is also a debate about the office's approach to consumer protection.

  • Schultz argues that while "there is a role for the attorney general" to pursue cases involving serious fraud or wrongdoing, recent officeholders have focused too much on what he described as "frivolous" lawsuits that "extract a lot of money from businesses."
  • Ellison defended the work of the 28-member consumer protection division, saying those lawyers keep utility rates down, make sure charities aren’t committing fraud, and “go after” bad actors scamming Minnesotans on everything from student loans to swimming pools.
Data: Minnesota Attorney General's Office; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios
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