JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – In just 20 months, Republican Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has filed 25 lawsuits against Democratic President Joe Biden's administration, challenging policies on COVID-19 vaccinations, climate change, immigration and education, among other things.
It puts Missouri behind only Louisiana in the number of lawsuits against the Biden administration.
Schmitt's wins are about equal to his losses thus far. But Schmitt has made the court cases a central theme in his front-running campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat.
“Since Joe Biden has taken over the White House, Eric has been one of the leading state attorneys general to hold the Biden administration accountable,” Schmitt's campaign website declares.
Schmitt's legal barrage against the federal government contrasts sharply with his approach during his first two years in office, when he filed just one suit against Republican President Donald Trump’s administration.
It also marks a significant departure from the way Missouri attorneys general have historically run the office, though it's more in line with recent national trends. Attorneys general in both Republican- and Democratic-led states have increasingly sparred with the federal government over the past decade.
Schmitt said it's his responsibility “to push back on the Biden administration's policies.”
“The Attorney General’s Office standing in between Missourians and a radical, overreaching government is a hallmark of federalism, and states have a vital duty to keep the federal government in check,” Schmitt said in a statement to The Associated Press.
His Democratic Senate opponent, Trudy Busch Valentine, said Schmitt has wasted taxpayer resources “by filing endless publicity-seeking lawsuits over things that rarely have anything to do with the critical issues facing Missouri.”
Missouri's campaign season effectively began when Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt announced on March 8, 2021, that he would not seek reelection. Less than three hours later, Schmitt announced he was leading a dozen states in a lawsuit challenging a Biden directive on calculating the “social cost" of greenhouse gas emissions for federal regulations.
The timing of the two announcements may have been coincidental — the lawsuit had been in the works for weeks, said Schmitt spokesman Chris Nuelle. But it wasn't the last time Schmitt sued.
The next week, Schmitt joined other states in a lawsuit challenging Biden's revocation of a permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Then on March 24, 2021 — the same day Schmitt formally announced his Senate candidacy — Schmitt joined a dozen other states in a lawsuit challenging Biden's moratorium on new oil and gas leasing permits on U.S. lands and waters.
He followed that up with his fourth lawsuit in as many weeks against Biden's administration — a case alleging the U.S. Treasury Department was threatening to adopt an overly broad interpretation of a law prohibiting federal pandemic relief funds from being used to offset state tax cuts.
The initial flurry of lawsuits led to months of legal wrangling, with mixed results.
A judge dismissed the Keystone pipeline case this January after the company abandoned the project. A federal appeals court in July also upheld the dismissal of the Treasury Department lawsuit, saying Schmitt's office failed to show any harm justifying the suit.
After an appeals court lifted a nationwide injunction, a district judge in August imposed a limited injunction blocking Biden's moratorium on new oil and gas leases from being enforced in the 13 states that sued, including Missouri.
The first case Schmitt filed — challenging the social cost of greenhouse gases — was dismissed by a federal judge last year. A panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in June but has yet to rule.
Schmitt's overall win-loss record is close to even so far, though many cases are awaiting rulings from trial judges or appellate courts.
His most recent lawsuit — contesting Biden's student loan forgiveness plan — was dismissed last Thursday by a federal judge who said the six suing Republican-led states raised “important and significant challenges” but failed to show harm giving them grounds to sue. The next day, an appeals court temporary blocked Biden's administration from forgiving student loans while it considers an appeal from the states.
Schmitt previously was on a winning team of states that halted Biden's COVID-19 vaccination policy for employers with more than 100 workers. He also joined with other states to stop Biden's administration from ending pandemic-related restrictions on migrants seeking asylum on the southern border, though that case is on appeal.
The cost of Schmitt's federal legal battles is unclear, because they're handled as regular duties of state employees.
But "when you spend your time on these kinds of national issues, that necessarily means that you are not spending time on — or giving attention to — other things that the office is doing,” said Jim Layton, a top attorney from 1994-2017 under Democratic state attorneys general Jay Nixon and Chris Koster.
Schmitt's office said other duties have continued as normal. He has filed suits alleging consumer fraud, just as predecessors did, and has sought to shut down a private boarding school over abuse allegations, among other things. He also filed nearly 60 lawsuits to overturn mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions imposed by public schools, cities and counties.
Schmitt's frequent lawsuits put him at the forefront of a national trend. States collectively have filed 55 multi-state lawsuits against the federal government during the first 22 months of Biden's administration, according to data compiled by Paul Nolette, chair of the political science department at Marquette University. Nearly all have come from Republican-led states.
But that's well shy of the 160 multi-state lawsuits filed against Trump's administration, when Democratic-controlled states led the barrage. New York filed 109 lawsuits against Trump's administration.
Prior to Trump, states filed a median of 24 multi-state lawsuits per presidential term from Republican Ronald Reagan through Democrat Barack Obama. Missouri typically was involved in just one or two of those.
“We never really had occasion that I could think of where the federal government was doing things that we did not approve of,” said attorney Jim Deutsch, chief deputy under Missouri Attorney General William Webster from 1989 to 1993. Webster and then-President George H.W. Bush both were Republicans.
Layton said attorneys general used to function more like the CEO of a large law firm defending state agencies and statutes. But they now seem more focused on affecting public policies, he said.
“As the country has gotten more partisan, I think it’s become more common for attorneys general to operate that way," Layton said.
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