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Brown: Tough to pull Lisa Madigan from safety of attorney general’s office into the fray

Updated: July 19, 2013 6:44AM

Only four people have served as Illinois attorney general since 1983 — Neil Hartigan, Roland Burris, Jim Ryan and Lisa Madigan — and any of the first three arguably still might be in the job today if they hadn’t got the itch to be governor instead.

Okay, Hartigan and Burris would be getting pretty old by now, but an argument could be made.

Attorneys general always tend to be popular politicians. (Yes, there was a time when Burris was popular, too. So was Bill Scott before his conviction.)

It’s the nature of the job. You get to do a lot of populist stuff on behalf of the People of Illinois, and except at election time, there’s rarely anybody taking shots at you from the sidelines.

For one thing, nobody really knows much about what the attorney general does, which makes it even harder to say how to do it better.

Most of the time, the office generates only positive headlines as the attorney general goes to court on behalf of consumers or announces legal settlements that fatten state coffers.

The attorney general rarely gets caught in the middle of big controversies that can turn half the people against them the minute they voice an opinion. Of course, all that changes the second they run for higher office, which is why Hartigan, Burris and Ryan fell short.

And that brings us to Lisa Madigan, 10 years in office and exceedingly popular for most of them, currently in the midst of deciding whether she wants to be governor — and suddenly facing some serious slippage in her popularity.

A Capitol Fax/We Ask America poll released Monday showed Madigan’s advantage over Gov. Pat Quinn dropping from 26 points to 11 points just since January, most likely attributable to unfavorable scrutiny of her father House Speaker Mike Madigan and his role in the state’s financial problems.

As Lisa Madigan’s decision nears, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for her to stay clear of the political fray — with the latest effort to draw her into the ongoing controversies being served up Monday by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Daley.

Daley suggested the attorney general deserves part of the blame for the state’s pension impasse for not having offered an official legal opinion on the constitutionality of the dueling proposals approved by the Illinois House and Senate.

Daley did this in a noticeably polite manner, using much milder rhetoric than he continued to direct at Quinn. But taking on Madigan in any manner served to show that he is serious about making the race.

A Madigan spokesman said the attorney general has been privately advising the Legislature with legal advice and analysis on the constitutional issues for more than a year.

But Madigan has avoided issuing a formal legal opinion on the grounds the matter will almost undoubtedly end up in courts, and she will have to defend whatever legislation is enacted.

I agree with Madigan on this.

As a political candidate, she’ll have to tell us exactly where she stands on fixing the pension mess, but as the state’s attorney general, I don’t really see any positive role for her to play in resolving this. It’s much better to leave the legislators free to maneuver than to tie to their hands with a legal opinion that may or may not ultimately prove correct.

Whatever opinion Madigan might come up with would be just that, an opinion, that the courts would be free to ignore, as well as any legislator with a different point of view. There are already legal opinions aplenty to justify any approach.

I get a kick out of everyone who is sure about whether one proposal or another is constitutional. This is a matter that will be decided by the Illinois Supreme Court, and a whole lot will go into that decision beyond the four corners of the constitutional language that seems so clear to many.

And if the attorney general happened to side with the position taken by her father, the Speaker, the legal opinion would also be dismissed as political.

I don’t blame Daley for trying to pull Lisa Madigan from the cloistered tower of the attorney general’s office into the muck. But I think the rest of us are going to have to wait for her to decide whether she wants to make the leap.

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