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Josh Hawley prepares to take over as Missouri attorney general

Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Mo. attorney general-elect Josh Hawley

A Republican will hold the office of Missouri attorney general for the first time in 24 years when Josh Hawley is sworn in next month. He defeated Democratic challenger Teresa Hensley in November while styling himself as a constitutional scholar instead of a prosecutor.

As St. Louis Public Radio reported before the election, he stressed his credentials as a constitutional scholar. He served as a law clerk for U.S. Appeals Court Judge Michael McConnell of the 10th circuit and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. More recently, Hawley worked as a law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

He’s also served as a senior counsel as at the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty.

Among conservatives, Hawley is best known as part of the legal team that successfully prosecuted the “Hobby Lobby case,’’ which challenged the mandate in the federal Affordable Care Act for employers to include contraceptive coverage in the insurance they provide employees. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Hobby Lobby.

Hawley sat down Friday in Columbia with St. Louis Public Radio's Marshall Griffin to talk about his plans to run the top law enforcement office in Missouri:. The interview was edited for length; the full conversation is at the end of the article.

Who is Josh Hawley? Where did you come from, and how did you get here?

I grew up in Lexington, Missouri, went to high school in Kansas City, and eventually went to law school (at Yale University). I’m the first person in my family to go to law school. In my family that is not necessarily a glowing recommendation; we’re a family of farmers and business people. I went to law school because I discovered a passion for constitutional law. I think the attorney general should be and is a constitutional lawyer.

What will be your first official act as attorney general?

I don’t know the first act, but my priorities will be protecting the livelihoods and security of Missouri citizens, which means we’ll be pushing back vigorously against the dysfunction in Washington. That includes overregulation by the EPA of water on farmland, the clean power plan that’s actually a power grab, and the overtime regulations of the Department of Labor.

A campaign ad said your election would threaten women's health due to your opposition to abortion. Want to speak to that?

Total nonsense, and the voters saw through the many attack ads my opponents ran against me. The  job of the attorney general is to enforce the law and uphold the rule of law.

Even laws you personally don't agree with?

Of course. You can’t do the job unless you’re willing to say it’s not my personal beliefs that matter, it’s the law that matters, and it’s my job to uphold the law. That's a familiar situation for a lawyer.

What are your thoughts on Missouri's nonpartisan court plan?

I don’t know that it’s the role of the attorney general to propose changes or interact at all with the court plan as it exists. I will say that government at all levels should be transparent and have folks that work for the public interest. I certainly hope that would be true of our judges. When it comes to ethics reform, I’ll enact the toughest ethics policy in the country. Neither I nor my team will accept gifts from lobbyists or from folks under investigation by the state or trying to win bids from the state.

How will you differ from your predecessor Chris Koster?

As a constitutional lawyer I’ll bring a great respect for the U.S. Constitution, constitutional law and experience in federal courts. I think this set me apart from others who ran for attorney general. I've litigated at the highest levels in the country. I understand the need for Missouri to have a voice in those places.

You have to be a prosecutor to some extent. How will you approach that?

We have a several assistant attorneys general who serve as special prosecutors. It is a very important part of what the office does. We have a series of ongoing prosecution cases and we will absolutely ensure continuity in those cases. When we are called upon to be prosecutors, we will do that job with excellence and vigor.

What would you advocate for as attorney general?

I intend to lead on issues, such as fighting back against Washington dysfunction, standing up for ethics reform (beginning in my own office), fighting human trafficking, but the attorney general’s role is not a political one. This is really not a political office. It’s really a rule-of-law job.

Have you met with other newly elected GOP officeholders?

We talk frequently among each other and are in regular contact as we go through this transition. This is a chance to bring outside leadership and a fresh perspective to state government. We are giving the office a top to bottom review. I know the governor-elect is doing the same.

Have you been in contact with the Trump transition team?

I have not, but I look forward to seeing what he’ll do and hope he’ll immediately tackle the Washington dysfunction that is seriously threatening the livelihood and economic welfare of Missourians. I will be raising my voice for Missourians no matter who’s president, and I hope that we have a president who will now listen. But regardless of what he does, my job is to protect and defend the people of Missouri.

Anything else you want to talk about?

My wife, Erin, and I have two small boys, and we are so looking forward to serving the state together. I think the opportunities for our state are exceptional, and I can’t wait to be a part of it and serve.

The full Marshall Griffin interview with incoming Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.