Political gold in climate clash for 2 attorneys

By Robin Bravender | 05/04/2016 01:18 PM EDT

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (left) and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (right) are leading the state factions at war over climate rules.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (left) and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (right) are leading the state factions at war over climate rules. Photos courtesy of the West Virginia and New York offices of attorneys general.

West Virginia’s top prosecutor is a coal-state Republican who lives in a historic river town, has an office guarded by taxidermied bears and loves to hate government regulations. New York’s attorney general is a Democratic health food fanatic who does yoga, lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and has a penchant for going after big corporations.

They are rival generals in the legal war over the Obama administration’s signature climate change rule.

West Virginia’s Patrick Morrisey and New York’s Eric Schneiderman both see taking a strong stand on the issue as a winner in their home states. Most with a stake in the climate debate love one and loathe the other, catapulting both of them into the national spotlight.

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Fame has been welcome for the two political up-and-comers who are both widely seen as eyeing higher office. For either, a big win in what’s been dubbed the Super Bowl of climate litigation will be a major boost for his resume.

Morrisey, 48, is a New York native and former congressional staffer who’s made fighting federal environmental rules central to his job as West Virginia’s top prosecutor.

"West Virginia is really ground zero in the Obama administration’s illegal and unprecedented assault against coal miners and their families," Morrisey told Greenwire.

President Obama’s regulations helped spur him to run for office in 2012, he said, after he saw West Virginians suffering from what he called overreaching and illegal EPA rules.

Morrisey hates the Clean Power Plan so much that his office made sure one of his staffers — Assistant Attorney General J. Zak Ritchie — was first in line at a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., on the day lawsuits could be filed. Handing their petition in first meant they’d have the distinction of being named on the case now known as West Virginia v. EPA.

The behemoth lawsuit over the Clean Power Plan is still pending, with oral arguments slated for June 2. Nearly every state is on one side or the other, and industry groups, greens and scores of other interested parties have jumped into the fight. Morrisey’s office already won a big early victory this year when the Supreme Court granted the unprecedented request from 27 states led by West Virginia and numerous industry groups to freeze the rule while the litigation plays out in the lower court.

Morrisey appeared gleeful during a news conference he held after the Supreme Court announced it would halt the rule — a move that surprised even many of those who had asked the high court to step in.

Speaking at a podium — wearing a blue pinstriped suit with his cropped white and gray hair swept to one side and dark eyebrows that point upward — Morrisey smiled as he described the justices’ action as "truly historic" and "a win for coal miners and their families here in the Mountain State." He listed some of the other legal battles he’s waged against the Obama administration’s environmental policies.

"For years, I’ve fought Obama administration overreach and I’ve looked to stop these illegal EPA regulations that violate the rule of law and compromise our way of life here in West Virginia," he said.

His EPA offensive has won him accolades from the energy industry and Republicans.

"You’re talking about a lawyer who’s got something that no one else has ever gotten out of the Supreme Court," Republican energy strategist Mike McKenna said. "I would be amazed if this were his last stop. He’s going to be an important guy at some point."

Scott Segal, an industry attorney at Bracewell, called Morrisey an "unquestionable leader" in the effort to attack the Clean Power Plan. He’s "articulate and knowledgeable regarding the statutory, constitutional and administrative challenges the rule faces," Segal said.

Morrisey and his crusade against the administration’s environmental rules have also been spurned by greens in West Virginia and nationally.

William DePaulo, a West Virginia environmental attorney, questions whether Morrisey has the authority to represent the state in the Clean Power Plan litigation. DePaulo said in an interview that Morrisey’s anti-EPA litigation is a "way of pandering to unemployed coal miners."

DePaulo added, "I don’t like the fact that my state is being used as a tool for the advancement of some ideology that has no correspondence to the interest of the state." He said Morrisey represents "his buddies over at the Federalist Society and nobody else."

Morrisey, who bought a home in Harpers Ferry in 2006 and was admitted to the state bar just days before signing up to run for attorney general in 2012, is seen by some critics as an outsider using the state to advance a political career. Morrisey previously lost a bid for a New Jersey congressional seat in 2000.

"Morrisey has no real connection to West Virginia," DePaulo said. "He’s clearly using us as a stepping stone."

Environmental lawyer Matt Pawa said Morrisey is trying to "keep us burning rocks from the dinosaur era" and is "on the wrong side of history" when it comes to climate change.

Schneiderman: hero or bully?

Meanwhile, in the Empire State, Schneiderman has been leading the 18 states defending the rule that underpins Obama’s environmental legacy. The rule represents the first national regulation to cut power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions, and aims to slash carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

"Climate change represents an unprecedented threat to the environment, public health and our economy," Schneiderman said last November when he announced he was leading a coalition of states, cities and counties in defense of the Clean Power Plan. "We no longer can afford to respond to this threat with denials or obstruction."

The Clean Power Plan fight isn’t Schneiderman’s only climate campaign. His office is also making waves for its investigation into allegations that Exxon Mobil Corp. misled investors and the public about the impacts of climate change — claims that have sparked a backlash from Exxon and Schneiderman’s critics.

The New York attorney general convened a news conference in March with former Vice President Al Gore and a handful of other state attorneys general to announce a new state coalition that vowed to "defend climate change progress made under President Obama and to push the next president for even more aggressive action."

His rhetoric supporting climate regulations and attacking fossil fuel companies is as fiery as is Morrisey’s on the other side.

"We know that in Washington there are good people who want to do the right thing on climate change, but everyone from President Obama on down is under a relentless assault from well-funded, highly aggressive and morally vacant forces that are trying to block every step by the federal government to take meaningful action," said Schneiderman, who’s 61 with graying hair and a pronounced widow’s peak.

"So today, we’re sending a message that at least some of us — actually, a lot of us — in state government are prepared to step into this battle with an unprecedented level of commitment and coordination."

Meanwhile, Morrisey’s office shot out a press release commenting on Schneiderman’s news conference. "As the West Virginia Attorney General, I will strongly oppose efforts by anyone to bully job producers into compliance with this illegal and unprecedented regulation," Morrisey said of the Clean Power Plan.

Pawa, speaking at a recent event in Washington, called Schneiderman a "hero" for his work in the Exxon investigation. "Eric Schneiderman is the first out of the box, and he is a hero for doing that." Pawa has challenged Exxon in a separate case over groundwater contamination in New Hampshire.

McKenna called Schneiderman’s Exxon investigations a "fishing expedition" with "no legal merit." It’s a "political stunt, and that’s how I think people are going to view it," he said. He attributed Schneiderman’s environmental push to a desire for cash from environmentally driven donors. "He’s going aggressively on climate for one reason, and that is the modern Democratic Party’s principal interest group — principal driver — is the environmentalists."

Pawa, meanwhile, said Schneiderman is "showing a lot of leadership in taking on the issue of our time," dismissing criticisms from those calling the Exxon investigations a political stunt. "He’s taking an extremely careful and thorough approach to the law and moving in a methodical fashion," Pawa said.

Coal state vs. liberal bastion

It’s logical that New York and West Virginia represent the dueling sides in the state climate wars.

Data analyzed in 2014 by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication showed that those two states were at opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to public views about whether global warming is happening and whether there should be strict carbon dioxide limits on existing coal-fired power plants.

West Virginia had the lowest percentage of adults — 54 percent — who thought global warming was happening, according to survey data gathered between 2008 and 2014. Seventy-two percent of adult New Yorkers thought global warming was happening. The state fell behind only Washington, D.C., and Hawaii nationwide on that question.

Meanwhile, 76 percent of New Yorkers wanted strict greenhouse gas rules for existing coal-fired plants; just 43 percent of West Virginians agreed.

Doug Gansler, former Democratic attorney general of Maryland, served as president of the National Association of Attorneys General and knows both Morrisey and Schneiderman. Gansler called both leaders on the issue within their home states.

"General Morrisey is doing two things: He’s flexing his political philosophy, which is part and parcel of being a Republican in these days, as well as in his view protecting his constituents and his state." He’s using his skills as a "very good, hard-charging" lawyer "on behalf of the coal industry in challenging the authority of the EPA."

Schneiderman’s constituency in New York, meanwhile, "tends to be environmentally conscious," Gansler said, given its blue-state status. "It’s not surprising that General Schneiderman is in the forefront in the fight against climate change and for alternative energy."

The two attorneys general "certainly know each other, and I assume they interact," Gansler said. "I would be surprised if they’re personal friends."

Morrisey said in a statement, "I have respect for AG Schneiderman and understand that he is acting as an advocate for his position. We disagree on the legal issues involved in the Clean Power Plan but that disagreement certainly isn’t personal."

New York natives

Morrisey was born in New York and grew up in Edison, N.J. He described his background as "working class" in a recent interview with Greenwire.

His father was a U.S. Steel account manager; his mother was a registered nurse. Morrisey was the first in his family to graduate from a four-year college, worked as a stock boy at a CVS pharmacy and gave tennis lessons, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported in 2013. He was a line judge at the U.S. Open tennis tournaments in 1988 and 1989.

He got an undergraduate degree from Rutgers University and stayed on to attend law school, graduating in 1992. From 1999 until 2004, he was a staffer on Capitol Hill, where he focused on health care issues. He’s married to Denise Henry Morrisey, a lobbyist at Capitol Counsel LLC.

He was elected to office in 2012 after ousting Darrell McGraw, a Democrat who had the job for 20 years. Morrisey then became the first Republican attorney general since 1933.

After the contentious race, former West Virginia Secretary of State Ken Hechler reclaimed taxidermied bears that were on loan to McGraw’s office, the Gazette-Mail reported. As a joke, a family member gave Morrisey stuffed black bears to protect his office until the West Virginia Bear Hunters Association sent full-sized bears as replacements.

The bear hunters group followed up in 2013, sending a new bear for Morrisey to display, and a second bear was unknowingly left behind by McGraw, according to Morrisey’s office. The bears are often photo attractions for visitors to the Charleston office.

He doesn’t see himself as an anti-environmentalist, but he views it as his duty to fight back when rules overreach, he said. Of the coalition of states challenging the Clean Power Plan, he said, "every single state and their AGs care passionately about advancing clean air and clean water policies."

Morrisey said he isn’t thinking about running for higher office — for now. He said his sole focus at the moment is to serve the people of West Virginia and to urge the courts to knock down EPA’s climate rule for power plants. His state and the other challengers are all involved for the right reasons, he said, because it’s the "right thing to do."

Schneiderman grew up about 40 miles northeast of Edison on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the son of a corporate lawyer who went to law school on the GI Bill, he told New York Magazine.

He got an undergraduate degree at Amherst College and a law degree from Harvard University. He worked in private practice, then was elected to the New York State Senate in 1998. He was elected to succeed Andrew Cuomo — now the state’s governor — as attorney general in 2010.

Schneiderman was dubbed in the 2013 New York Magazine profile as "New York’s definitive liberal," who has "the soul of an activist."

As a teenager before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, he worked one summer as a clinic escort at a women’s health center, according to the magazine. Among his quirks: "He practices yoga and is a fastidiously healthy eater," the profile says.

Still, it says, "his public style is dry and factual."

Schneiderman was briefly deputy sheriff in Massachusetts’ Berkshire County after graduating from Harvard. He went on to work in private practice before serving in the state Senate from 1999 until 2010.

He’s long been viewed as a reliable friend by environmentalists.

"He was one of the early critics of fracking," said Richard Schrader, who represents the Natural Resources Defense Council in Albany. He was also "very supportive" of the state’s environmental protection fund, Schrader added. "It goes along with his overall progressive politics. He’s been liberal strong on support for workers, strong on civil liberties and strong on environmental protections."

Christopher Goeken, director of public policy and government relations at the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund and former state Senate staff member, said it’s a "smart political move" for Schneiderman to zero in on climate change and clean air issues, both of which "resonate with New York voters."

Schneiderman also "cares passionately about this issue," Goeken added. And by making it a priority as New York’s top lawyer, "he could help change the national discussion."

Lem Srolovic, chief of the New York attorney general’s Environmental Protection Bureau, said in an interview that Schneiderman and his office have been aggressive on climate change because it’s a priority that should be tackled "with the range of legal tools" in order to control "runaway extreme climate change."

Schneiderman, Srolovic added, "really understands that climate change is the defining environmental issue of our time."

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