A recent guest opinion column in The Courier Journal declared that Attorney General Dan Cameron had “failed” in his duties in the Breonna Taylor case. I agree.
But it’s becoming clear that Cameron hasn’t just failed in the Taylor case — he’s failing as attorney general. He’s turned the powerful Office of Attorney General into a nonentity, signing on to other people’s briefs and posing at photo-ops.
And at a defining moment, he’s failing the family of Breonna Taylor, his city and the people of Kentucky. The Taylor family knows it. Louisville knows it. Even Beyoncé knows it. So, how did we get here?
When Cameron was elected in 2019 as Kentucky’s first African American statewide official, there were hopes that this was a turning point in Kentucky’s history. In a moving political ad, voters saw Cameron reverently admiring the statue of Lincoln in the state Capitol. Wisely, the nearby figure of Confederate states president Jefferson Davis was blocked out of the shot.
He was (nominally) friendly with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, the former attorney general who reached across the political chasm by appointing him to serve out the last few days of his vacated seat.
However, there were always signs that the young Republican’s apprenticeship with arch-partisan U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell would shape his term. The first evidence was his appointment of Steve Pitt, former Gov. Matt Bevin’s top lawyer, as a special advisor. After a series of legal defeats defending the often combative and more often wrong Gov. Bevin, Pitt had overseen Bevin’s controversial last-minute pardons. After a blizzard of news articles about the haphazard process Pitt had presided over, he was forced to resign.
And Cameron, who gleefully touted selfies with President Trump, loyally joined other Republican attorneys general in condemning Trump’s impeachment. Later, he appeared as close as social distance allowed with the president in a meeting to support law enforcement during nationwide protests against police violence — while Taylor’s case languished in his office.
But at the start of the coronavirus crisis, Cameron appeared to focus on making government work. He issued an opinion allowing government entities to hold virtual public meetings. He set up a unit where consumers could report suspected price gouging related to coronavirus to his agency. In another opinion, he upheld Beshear’s power to delay an election during a declared state of emergency.
However, he joined other Republicans in asserting that abortions were elective medical procedures that should be suspended during the emergency. And seeing Beshear’s poll numbers skyrocket for his strong leadership, Cameron must have thought he needed to go on the attack if he was going to run against him in 2023. He filed a motion requesting to join a lawsuit challenging a Beshear order prohibiting certain types of interstate travel during the pandemic.
And, following the McConnell using-religion-as-a-wedge-issue playbook, he intervened in a federal lawsuit from a church that wanted to hold in-person church services in violation of the March 19 executive order banning large gatherings. (Cameron did not actually argue on behalf of his motion, leaving that to the able Deputy Attorney General Barry Dunn.) Cameron scored limited success in those cases.
The governor was forced to slightly modify his interstate travel ban. And, after winning a temporary restraining order in the in-person church services case, the issue was mooted by Beshear’s reopening plan. (One church supporting Cameron later reported 18 members with the coronavirus and returned to remote services.) And he continues to join lawsuits seeking to hamper Beshear’s power to contain COVID-19.
The attorney general later sided with an armed group that wanted to protest at the Governor’s Mansion. The protesters, many members of the white supremacist Three Percenters, lynched an effigy of Beshear outside the window of his home. (Cameron later tutted his disapproval of the action).
But these were politically easy decisions. It changed March 13 when three officers executing a “no-knock” warrant battered down the door of Breonna Taylor’s apartment and shot inside 25 times, killing her.
Citing conflicts of interest, Commonwealth Attorney Tom Wine punted the case quicker than Hall of Famer Ray Guy rescuing a fumbled snap — leaving the matter squarely in Attorney General Cameron’s lap. Meanwhile a mass movement to demand justice for Taylor rose up.
Since receiving the case file on May 20, Cameron has dithered, waiting (he says) for the LMPD to finish their investigation and for the FBI to report. This is nonsense. He’s the attorney general. He has ample resources to investigate and act.
My analysis cannot top that of an astute young man, Sean Ali Waddell Jr., Muhammad Ali’s cousin. Speaking at a Justice for Breonna rally in Frankfort, he turned to address Daniel Cameron by name. “Let me tell you something, ‘Brother,’ don’t you be on the wrong side of history.” Don’t let a “few little cheap friendships and concessions … make you bow down.”
I fear that is what’s coming. Cameron appears paralyzed to act. It looks like he’s running out the clock, desperately waiting for cues from McConnell or Trump.
Some of my friends who are lawyers attribute this to Cameron’s lack of experience as a trial lawyer, and it is true that prior to his election as attorney general, he had only practiced sparingly. But I think that’s a mistake in characterizing the Office Of Attorney General. This is a position primarily of political leadership and only secondarily one of legal acumen. Cameron can hire good lawyers, but making hard decisions is something he must do for himself.
His problem is more a lack of political ability — the self-confidence of having one’s own personal philosophy and having a reason to be in the political sphere besides mere ambition. Like newly minted federal circuit Judge Justin Walker, Cameron’s a creature of McConnell’s laboratory, not an independent political figure standing on his own feet.
But unlike Walker, he must win elections. He still has time to gather his will and resources and prosecute the Taylor case like the historical moment demands. I am not sure he has it in him, though.
Democrats need to start thinking seriously about recruiting a better candidate than Greg Stumbo for 2023. Maybe it is one who could fight injustice “from the hood to the holler.”
Kurt X. Metzmeier, is the author of “Writing the Legal Record: Law Reporters in Nineteenth-Century Kentucky” (University Press of Kentucky, 2016). Although he is a law librarian at UofL, the opinions in this article are his own and not those of the university or any of its institutions.