The Herald Bulletin

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Columns

February 23, 2014

Maureen Hayden: Zoeller relishes role as state's defender

INDIANAPOLIS — Supporters of same-sex marriage hailed Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring when he announced that he wouldn’t defend his state’s prohibition against gay marriage.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller calls Herring’s decision a “dereliction of duty.”

Zoeller prefers another model — that of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. Like Herring, Cooper is a Democrat and personally supports same-sex unions. But when North Carolina’s ban was challenged in court last fall, Cooper said his job as the state’s chief lawyer trumped his personal views. He vowed to vigorously defend the law.

“That’s the job,” Zoeller told the Indianapolis chapter of The Federalist Society this week. “… This has nothing to do with partisanship or your personal views.”

It’s not hard to envision Zoeller, a devout Catholic with traditional views when it comes to marriage, embracing his job to defend Indiana’s current law against same-sex marriage if — more likely when — it’s challenged in court.

But his job also requires him to veer from his Catholic tenets at times. He described a deep moral conviction against the death penalty. Yet it doesn’t stop him from instructing his staff to defend challenges to Indiana’s death penalty law.

As he told a sympathetic audience of conservatives and libertarians who share his disdain of federal control over states’ regulatory and civil rights: “It’s not my personal views that I am defending. It’s the obligation to defend the authority of our state and the decision of the men and women you all elect have made.”

The two-term Republican wins friends with talk like that. He picks up enemies, though, when he goes beyond defender of state law and starts playing offense.

Zoeller is an ardent advocate of the position that state attorneys general are a last line of defense against federal overreach. It’s an area where he has stepped into some of the hottest legal and political debates being waged across the nation.

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