Attorney general's office is often a stepping stone

Bob Buckley
Legal perspectives
Bob Buckley

The attorney general of Missouri is an important office. The election of the attorney general is provided for in the Missouri Constitution, but the duties of the attorney general are set forth in the Missouri statutes. A primary duty is to assist prosecutors in criminal cases, and the attorney general’s office handles all criminal appeals.

The law provides that the attorney general is a full-time position and that the attorney serving in that position shall not otherwise practice law. The attorney general is essentially the managing partner of a large law firm and oversees the legal affairs of the state.

Some very good lawyers have served the state as the chief lawyer in my legal career. The office has been a good training ground for higher office, and many of those who have served as attorney general did achieve election to higher office.

It began with Thomas Eagleton, who served as the chief lawyer from 1961 to 1965. He was the youngest attorney general in Missouri history. He then ran for the United States Senate in 1968, after serving four years as lieutenant governor, and unseated another Democrat, Edward Long. He then was a vice presidential candidate with George McGovern in 1972 but had to withdraw after revelations about mental health issues surfaced. He then ran for election in 1974 and served three more terms until 1987. He was replaced by Kit Bond, who had not been attorney general, but served as Missouri’s auditor from 1971 to 1973 until he was elected governor for two terms before running for the Senate, where he served four terms. He received his training as auditor and then governor before running for the United States Senate.

Jack Danforth served as attorney general from 1969 to 1977. He was the first Republican elected to that office in 40 years. He ran for the United States Senate in 1970, but lost in a close race to the incumbent, Stuart Symington. He then ran for the Senate again in 1976. There were three Democrats running, including former governor, Warren Hearnes and Jerry Litton, a congressman from Chillicothe who tragically died with his family in a plane crash after he won the primary. Many thought that Litton, a rising political star, had a chance to be president someday. Danforth easily beat Warren Hearnes after he served two full terms as the state’s lawyer and served in the Senate until 1995.

An interesting side note is that Jack Danforth had three men on his staff as attorney general who ascended to higher office: Kit Bond, John Ashcroft and Clarence Thomas, who later became a Supreme Court justice.

John Ashcroft became the attorney general immediately after Jack Danforth and also served two terms before becoming Missouri’s governor for eight years. He served in the Senate for one term beginning in 1995, but lost his re-election battle to Governor Mel Carnahan, who also died in a plane crash a few weeks before the election in 2000. He was appointed U.S. attorney general by President Bush and served until 2005.

Jay Nixon was elected attorney general in 1993 and served four terms until 2009 and was elected governor for two terms. Nixon also unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate.

Finally, Chris Koster was attorney general from 2009 until 2017 and ran for governor and lost to Eric Greitens in 2016. Chris had served in the Missouri Senate for five years before running for attorney general.

All of the attorneys general until Josh Hawley served at least one full term before ascending to higher office. Jack Danforth did attempt to run for higher office early in his first term but lost and then served out both of his terms as attorney general. Josh Hawley only served two years of his term. Some will remember his political commercials when he ran for attorney general – that he was tired of people running for office and then trying to get elected to higher office. The symbol of the ladder was prominent in his advertisement. He climbed the ladder within two years after being elected and may be trying to climb again in 2024 in the presidential campaign.

Eric Schmitt is the current attorney general. He had been elected treasurer in 2016 but vacated that office in 2019 when Governor Parson appointed him to fill out the unexpired term of Josh Hawley when Hawley was elected to the Senate. He then ran for election in 2020 and won. Schmitt did serve as a state senator for two terms before running for treasurer. In March he announced his intent to run for the United States Senate to replace Roy Blunt who is retiring. Thus, Eric Schmitt will be attempting to climb the ladder after serving half of his treasurer’s term, half of Josh Hawley’s term and half of the term he was elected to fill for a total of four years as attorney general. If Schmitt is elected to the Senate, the last two attorneys general will not have completed the terms they were elected to fill.

The attorney general position in the last 50 years has been a step toward higher office. Those who were elected prior to Josh Hawley and Eric Schmitt took a more traditional approach and completed their terms before running for higher office. Whether that is right or wrong is up to the voters to decide. It is apparent that it did not bother the voters when Josh Hawley was elected to the Senate despite his political advertisement complaining of ladder climbers. We shall see if Eric Schmitt can also climb the ladder.

Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence. Email him at bbuckley@wagblaw.com.