Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson ’95 calls public service a calling

Just two years after winning office as Washington State's 18th Attorney General, Bob Ferguson ’95 gave the 2014 Attorney General Robert Abrams Public Service Lecture, noting that his highly autobiographical speech could have been titled: “How my NYU Law Public Interest Law Center grant led me to a life of public service, and—this is true—a multimillion dollar Karl Rove attack ad.”

Bob Ferguson '95

A competitive chess player, a proud fourth-generation resident of Washington State, and a father of two, Ferguson has served as chair of the King County Council, worked in the litigation department of Preston, Gates, and Ellis (now called K&L gates), and clerked for Chief Judge W. Fremming Nielsen of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Washington and Judge Myron Bright of the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. But in a hard-fought campaign, Ferguson was the target of a $3 million attack ad that focused on the work he did after his 1L year in law school. Ferguson received a Public Interest Law Center (PILC) summer grant to work in Guadalupe, Arizona, with the Yaqui Indian Community and at the Arizona Capital Representation Project, which provides representation for death-row inmates. The ad concentrated particularly on a motion that Ferguson had written in support of an inmate who had been convicted of killing two police officers.

That attack ad was funded by the Republican State Leadership Committee, a Karl Rove super-PAC, and represented the most money that had ever been spent in a state attorney general race. Ferguson’s campaign did not have equivalent funds to spend on television ads rebutting the attacks. But Ferguson said that at no point during the campaign did he regret the work he did at the Arizona Capital Representation Project. “There’s no moment where I thought, I wish I could go back in time and change that decision…even though I knew that there was a good chance it could cost me something I’d worked very hard for,” he said. “I knew I’d done work that was consistent with our ideals as lawyers, and as law students.”

Ferguson encouraged the students in attendance to consider careers in public service for themselves. As a public service lawyer, Ferguson said, “you get to do meaningful work, you get to do it right away, you get to make a difference in people’s lives, and you will be happier for it.” He added that while he also enjoyed his time working as a litigator for a firm, “My work at my firm was a job, whereas the work I do now [as attorney general] is a calling.”

In his position, Ferguson has had a chance to work on a number of groundbreaking legal issues, including the legal complications that have arisen following the state’s legalization of marijuana. “A lot of folks assume, in my state and maybe even nationwide, that legalization is kind of a permanent fixture in Washington State…but there are some challenges to that,” said Ferguson. “There are law suits that have sprung up in Washington State… around whether local jurisdictions—cities, counties—can opt out of the sale of marijuana.”

In the wake of legislation permitting same-sex marriage in Washington State, Ferguson’s office has also worked on a number of same-sex marriage discrimination cases. In one recent case, the attorney general filed a consumer protection lawsuit against a florist who refused to sell flowers for a same-sex wedding. “I have very strong views on this subject,” said Ferguson. “As far as I’m concerned, in my state, you simply can’t discriminate against people based on who they love. I won’t accept it, and I’ll use the power of my office to enforce those laws that we have.”

Watch the full video of the lecture (1 h): 

Posted October 3, 2014