Governors, Attorneys General at Odds Over Obama Policies

Colorado’s Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to help implement the Obama administration’s new environmental rules, but he has been relegated to a spectator role as his state’s attorney general joins three lawsuits to invalidate them.

In North Carolina, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory wants his state in court fighting White House environmental and immigration initiatives he views as federal overreach, but is working around the state’s top lawyer—a likely candidate for governor himself—who has criticized that approach.

Such disagreements highlight a different kind of divided government in about a dozen states where governors and attorneys general come from opposing parties. That can leave these states speaking with conflicting voices on crucial cases that are testing President Barack Obama’s top policy priorities.

“As the parties have become more polarized, there are more opportunities to back or oppose the president,” said William & Mary law professor Neal Devins. “So many AGs are seeking higher office that there’s a lot of political strategy in the decision on whether to participate in a case.”

Multistate litigation has become a hallmark of recent challenges to the White House as Mr. Obama seeks to cement his legacy through executive orders and agency actions. More than two dozen states are challenging the administration’s plan to defer deporting millions of illegal immigrants. Dueling groups of states have clashed in cases challenging the president’s signature health-care law.

Twenty or more states could end up in a coalition challenging Environmental Protection Agency rules that would require power plants to cut greenhouse emissions, while a different batch of states is preparing to intervene in defense of the EPA.

A state’s legal stance in these cases often, though not always, depends on which party won the last election. But the situation gets murkier when a state’s chief executive and its top legal officer see the world differently.

That risks sending mixed messages to courts, residents and other states, especially when one part of the state government is preparing to adopt rules while another part is trying to kill them.

Colorado’s wide-ranging litigation efforts, for example, have been spearheaded by GOP Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who was part of a state coalition that won a ruling last week blocking Interior Department rules for hydraulic fracturing on public lands. She also had Colorado join a group of 13 states that won an August ruling blocking an EPA plan putting more small bodies of water and wetlands under federal protection. And Ms. Coffman recently said she would have Colorado join the suit against the EPA greenhouse-gas rule, expected to be filed as soon as this month.

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