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Newsletter | Revolving Door Project Newsletter | March 13, 2024

Meet Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen

ClimateEthics in GovernmentState Attorneys General
Meet Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen

Montana’s top legal officer is flying under the national radar, but his scandals and policy agenda mirror his more infamous peers.

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High-profile Republican State Attorneys General have made national headlines in recent years for their cruel policy agendas and brazen acts of political corruption. Texas AG Ken Paxton was at the forefront of Trump’s election conspiracies and has faced impeachment proceedings (at the hands of his own party) for alleged bribe-taking. Former Louisiana AG Jeff Landry parlayed a slew of scandals and an apathy towards environmental racism into the state’s governorship. For further examples, see these recent blogs from my colleague Toni spotlighting other egregious conduct from these officials. 

Though not yet a national figure a la Paxton or Landry, Montana AG Austin Knudsen is following in their footsteps, touting a resume defined by sweeping ethics scandals, attacks on vulnerable communities, and an unrelenting degradation of environmental protections at the behest of Big Oil. And in general, just like progressives needed to pay more concern to federal executive branch employees that corporate America has long understood to be highly consequential, state constitutional officers cry out for greater monitoring,

Attacks on the Judiciary

Austin Knudsen was elected as Montana’s Attorney General in 2021. As the chief legal officer of his state, one would expect AG Knudsen to have a certain amount of respect for and cordiality towards the judiciary, yet his short tenure has been rife with ongoing spats with the state’s Supreme Court. The saga began in 2021 with a bill that gave the Governor authority to unilaterally appoint judges. This was a politically calculated bill—Republicans had just won the governorship for the first time in 16 years—but it passed both the legislature and a challenge before the state Supreme Court. 

Despite this victory, Knudsen, representing the legislature, launched an antagonistic investigation into the Supreme Court justices for allegedly “pre-judging” the issue because one justice had answered a routine polling question about the law from the Montana Judges Association. Knudsen’s office then filed unprecedented subpoenas for court records and emails of the court administrator who handled the polls, which were ultimately (and appropriately) quashed as “extremely overboard.” In typical Republican AG fashion, Knudsen was undeterred by pesky legal constraints—in fact, his deputy stated, “the Legislature does not recognize this Court’s Order as binding and will not abide [by] it.” This brazen repudiation of standing jurisprudence quickly sparked litigation (which remains ongoing) and public admonishments of Knudsen by both the judiciary and former members of the AG office (for a full accounting, read these great rundowns from the Montana Free Press).

Knudsen’s aggressive posturing on the issue has also gotten him in hot water with ethics officials. He’s now facing 41 counts of professional misconduct from Montana’s Office of Disciplinary Council stemming from these disputes. Knudsen is accused of “routinely and frequently undermin[ing] public confidence in the fairness and impartiality of our system of justice.” Given his deputy’s comment alone, this point is hard to disprove, but that was just one of several instances where Knudsen’s office attacked justices who had ruled against him. Knudsen—along with spokespeople or his office—criticized public employees unions for allegedly seeking out left-wing judges to hear their cases and tweeted about an “activist” judge who upheld a college campus policy to restrict guns on campus. 

Destroying The Environment For Oil Interests

When Knudsen isn’t busy disputing the court’s legitimacy, his office is laser focused on a key tenet of the Republican Attorneys’ General mission: dismantling environmental protections in order to give oil interests carte blanche to build pipelines, emit noxious fumes, and pollute waterways. Two months after being sworn in, Knudsen sued the Biden administration to prevent its cancellation of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The tar-sands oil pipeline owned by TC Energy would have run through Montana, leaving the state vulnerable to spills and leaks—a common occurrence for the Keystone Pipeline System that has doused neighboring North Dakota wetlands with hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil. To Knudsen, this obvious risk was outweighed by the supposed 3,700 job opportunities in Montana. Knudsen’s lawsuit and press release failed to mention, however, that while these jobs would be in Montana, they largely would not be filled by Montanans. According to TC Energy themselves, only 10-15 percent of the construction jobs would have been hired locally and few positions were needed in Montana once construction was completed. Hardly a boon for the local job market.

Attorney General Knudsen has kept up this pressure on the executive branch’s regulatory authority, filing numerous suits against the Environmental Protection Agency. He challenged the EPA’s rule that implemented stronger emissions standards for coal, natural gas, and oil-fired power plants. The rule would save $85 billion through health benefits, reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by hundreds of millions of tons, and prevent 1300 premature deaths per year. He’s also currently pursuing a lawsuit to block the EPA’s 2023 Water Quality Rule that would enable states and native communities to protect their waterways when federally permitted projects threaten their ecosystems.

While seeking to prevent any limitations on pollution for existing infrastructure, Knudsen has also attempted to roll out the red carpet for any future projects. Montana’s Attorney General has: sued to block a Biden executive order to halt oil leases on federal lands; filed comments opposing a Bureau of Land Management Rule to prevent extraction of natural resources from public lands; and criticized a proposed 6 million acre conservation area in Montana. It appears Knudsen’s disdain for environmental protection knows no bounds … unless he can use it as a ploy to dismantle protections for homeless people. Knudsen couldn’t care less about protecting the environment from oil spills, resource extraction, or water pollution, but he did feign concern about the “dignity” of public lands when petitioning the Supreme Court to allow state authorities to clear homeless encampments. Apparently, oil and gas interests—who have contributed thousands of dollars to his campaigns—should have free rein to destroy Montana’s public lands, but unhoused Montanans should be criminalized for simply seeking shelter.

Culture Wars

Knudsen’s lack of humanity towards vulnerable people expands beyond just Montana’s homeless communities. Knudsen has expended state resources to relentlessly wade into culture wars nonsense—forcing schools to out transgender and non-binary students to their parents, spreading racist conspiracy theories about Biden nominees, banning Critical Race Theory in schools, and threatening corporations who have Diversity, Equity, And Inclusion policies. He has staunchly defended Montana’s draconian 15 week abortion ban that included a 5-10 year prison sentence and $50,000 fine. Knudsen, in an act of solidarity with a fellow critic of the judiciary, filed an appeal challenging the gag order against Trump for his threats against witnesses, prosecutors, and judges in his DC Circuit case.

Much like his more well-known peers Paxton and Landry, Knudsen is wielding his power to bully political opponents, pave the way for environmental destruction, and diminish the quality of life for his state’s most vulnerable communities. This is not a novel policy agenda from Knudsen—it is part of the prototypical right wing playbook in 2024 advocated by Marc Andressen and other elites—but state attorneys general, especially those in less populous states like Montana, often escape the spotlight from national press. Their pernicious conduct deserves far more scrutiny. 

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Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week:

Responding To Larry Summers

A Decade-Long Week And SOTU Thoughts

Biden’s Trustbusters Face Hurdles From Within

RELEASE: Top Trump Officials’ Latest Move a Reminder of Trump’s Prioritization of Wall Street

Letter From Senator Warren To Federal Reserve Board’s Inspector General

Image Credit: Montana Department Of Justice

ClimateEthics in GovernmentState Attorneys General

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