Podcast: A Conversation with Attorney General Sean Reyes
In this episode of our Public Policy & Regulation Group’s “Conversations with State Attorneys General” podcast series, Public Policy Partner Jim Schultz talks with Attorney General of Utah Sean Reyes about his path to a career in public service and what initiatives his office is currently focusing on. Attorney General Reyes discusses big technology companies and how state attorneys general are working to strike a balance between appropriate regulation while not stifling innovation. He also describes the collaborative work that state AGs do in curating policy changes in Washington, D.C. and their efforts to push back against federal overreach to hold the administration in power accountable, regardless of party affiliation.
Jim Schultz: Welcome to Holland & Knight's, Eyes on Washington. In this next installment, I'm proud to have on today, Sean Reyes, who is the Attorney General from the state of Utah. My name is Jim Schultz. I chair the state attorneys general practice at the firm, and I'm very pleased to have such an esteemed guest on today. Sean, welcome.
Sean Reyes: Thank you so much, Jim and thanks to Holland & Knight for hosting. It's a pleasure to be on with you, my friend.
Jim Schultz: Thank you. Sean, you have a very interesting and humble background. I think it'd be great for our listeners just to hear a little bit about your background, where you came from and how you got to where you are today.
Sean Reyes: Thank you. Appreciate it. Yes, my dad was an immigrant from the Philippines. Spanish and Filipino heritage. His uncle had served at one time as president of the Philippines. So we have a little bit of public service in our background. But he came to escape the Marcos regime under very difficult circumstances. He was an amazing hero of mine and accomplished so much in his own country and gave up all of that to come and live the American dream and escape the totalitarian regime there. That was in the late 60s when he came penniless, not knowing anyone and established himself and started to build his American dream. My mom was born and raised on the big island of Hawaii, so she's Japanese, Hawaiian and Chinese. I'm a kind of a melting pot in terms of race and ethnicity, but grew up when they met married in a little tougher part of the Los Angeles area. So, I was born in Southern California, if any of you have been by the airport in LAX and seen a big donut, kind of iconic Randi's donut there, a landmark that's right there on La Cienega where I was raised, and I went to junior high school out in the San Fernando Valley. I went home almost every summer to Hawaii to work on my grandparents farm. So really, I got to live the rural, rustic life, I got to live the inner city and then suburban life. I loved it all. Multireligious, multiethnic, multi political family. I got recruited to play some ball and came out to play for Brigham Young University, found out I really wasn't good enough to play there, but fell in love with the state and fell in love with a young lady from the state of Utah. It's been now twenty five years of marriage, an absolute treasure, the angel of my life and six kids and several careers, including this crazy one in public service later and we're still together going strong and the state of Utah is going strong. I just won a reelection and honor to serve four more years now in my third term, Jim.
Jim Schultz: Sean, that's great, thank you so much. Let's talk a little bit about what some of the priorities in your office are now. But, before you get into that, this is Eyes on Washington, right? That's the name of this podcast, and somebody asked me the other day why Eyes on Washington if you're going to talk about AGs? My response to them is, if you hadn't been watching AGs have been taking on issues that have national significance in the past number of years, and not only that, but where you have a Republican administration in office, you see Democratic AGs kind of holding them accountable in a way. And when you see a Democratic administration in, you know, you see Republican AGs taking on the administration in a bipartisan way. When there are big issues across the country that are affecting this country, you see state AGs in a bipartisan way, stepping up and taking on things like, you know, data privacy and things like that. Sean, what are the priorities in your office? And if you can focus a little bit on what you've been doing on the more national issues, that would be great.
Sean Reyes: Of course, and you summarized that so well, Jim. I think we should take you with us as state AGs, as our PR director, because the reality is most people around the country don't know what AGs do. I didn't know before I became an attorney general, I didn't come from within the office, I came from the private sector. So just to touch more on my background, I spent 14 years at our largest private law firm representing a lot of technology companies and litigating and trying cases for international and local clients. Then I was in-house counsel, general counsel for a tech company, and then went to go be a partner in a venture fund that was very tech oriented, we invested and helped run a lot of tech plays and companies. And then I landed here now as a state regulator overseeing a lot of government regulation and a lot of what I have made a priority in my administration across various different platforms is a different subject matter, though, is sort of the balance between regulation and innovation.
You know as state AGs we have a mandate to protect our citizens, our consumers, whether that's from violent crime or white collar crime or digital invasion and harm. How do we do that and not stifle innovation and hold technology companies at the same time accountable who may be getting too big and too powerful and level the playing field so that we truly have a fair market. All of those are types of things that state AGs do. You said it very, very well. We are a check and a balance from time to time against the federal government, whether that's executive level in the presidency, even Congress. State AGs, we may file lawsuits, and it can look political because, as you suggest from time to time, we have cases that one administration and it's a Democrat administration, you see Republican AGs, be very active in trying to hold them accountable. But, as you also alluded to and I think the majority of the work that we do, as state AGs is really national and collaborative. And when I say national, it's because it affects each and every one of our states that we come together and we want Washington to help us as a partner. The federal government is so powerful and affects so much of our lives, but often we will take, we think, a heavy handed role in policy that directly affects our constituents and states. So we put aside Democrat, Republican, independent labels come together in a bipartisan way and will often push back against federal overreach, regardless of who is in power at the federal level, Congress or executive branch, and then we will also collaborate on the business side of things.
As state AGs we have a mandate to protect our citizens, our consumers, whether that's from violent crime or white collar crime or digital invasion and harm... How do we do that and not stifle innovation and hold technology companies, at the same time, accountable who may be getting too big and too powerful.
As you mentioned, big tech data protection, we will come together. We have a national lawsuit against Facebook and we have a number of them against Google, I'm on the leadership team of one of those and I can tell you, we've been working on these Google cases for years. That's not to say Google is evil, and does everything wrong. They have been contributors and innovators to so many ways that have benefited society and improved our lives. But they have also, we believe, stifled a lot of competition and ended up hurting smaller businesses in our states. So as these things, affect our jurisdictions, we come together, whether it's on the opioid side to hold those who brought the opioid crisis to us to hold them accountable, and we did that back in the day with the tobacco companies, before my time, when state AGs banded together. So you're exactly on point where we can we try to come together to influence policy at the federal level, and we certainly do that locally at the state level. We are not policy makers we're policy enforcers and since we're tasked with enforcing laws, we want to make sure that laws that are passed are ones that are viable, feasible that we believe in, that we can enforce.
The federal government is so powerful and affects so much of our lives, but often we will take, we think, a heavy handed role in policy that directly affects our constituents and states. So we put aside Democrat, Republican, independent labels come together in a bipartisan way and will often push back against federal overreach, regardless of who is in power at the federal level, Congress or executive branch.
So all of those things come together and my emphasis has been on issues like fighting human trafficking, fighting the opioid epidemic, fighting mental behavioral health challenges that manifest themselves in things like teen and young adult suicide and working to get things like the 988 national number passed. Which we were successful and the Trump administration was able to just sign with Congress's passing of that bill. Things like that are really important to me. White collar fraud, technology issues where we find ways to encourage the private sector to lean in and help us solve these big social issues and try our best not to not to stifle innovation just because we can as government, because we have resources, we're trying to strike always that balance, Jim. I think that is a good intro to sort of the work that we do collaboratively as state AGs.
Jim Schultz: If you can talk a little bit, you know just recently back in March I believe, you among 11 other states sued this administration, the Biden administration, over the executive order that sought to establish the social cost of greenhouse gases. And that was in all states involved, Republican attorneys general. And in that we saw during the Trump administration that the cost set was taken down to seven dollars per metric ton from fifty dollars during the Obama administration, and that the Biden administration is now going to temporarily return to that while they look at this issue and determine what the cost is going to be going forward. Could you talk a little bit about that case and the impact and what drives you to get involved in those cases? And you talked about overreach earlier, I imagine that's a piece and that's the basis upon which you're pushing out this lawsuit and signed onto this lawsuit. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Sean Reyes: Sure, and there are structural challenges, there are constitutional issues, we believe, but from a policy standpoint, maybe I can give some context and this harkens back to the earlier years of my service and tenure, back in 2013 to 15 and 16, when during the Obama administration, that administration, Vice President Biden, they rolled out some incredibly ambitious regulatory policies, and I'll give you two examples. One was the EPA and clean water the waters of the United States, which would have ceded a lot of state autonomy to the federal government in a way that was unprecedented, and we as state AGs felt like that was far too much of an encroachment. It's not that we believe that we only as states should be involved in management, we just believe that we should be involved in some meaningful way, and so we're very open to collaboration, true federalism, if you will, states and federal government working together, but too often what the federal government calls cooperative federalism, which we believe is sort of a misnomer. It's it's a way of saying a federal cram down, you do exactly what we dictate or you'll have no say or participation or federal funds tied to something else are predicated on this. We saw that and we fought back in the waters of the United States. We won at every level and we're able to rein in that what we again felt was overly ambitious attempt to take away power from the states.
Similarly, the Clean Power Plan was one where there were the federal government attempting to regulate far beyond any boundaries that had ever existed before in the fence line. We knew why they were doing that, they had certain policy goals in mind, but to do that, we felt was cheating. Let's achieve those in ways that are cooperative that we worked out through Congress that we have states be involved in, and this social cost of carbon policy, I feel and many of my colleagues feel falls in that same realm. The notion that the federal government can come in and dictate terms, regulate, take over policy based on a somewhat amorphous definition of the social cost of carbon; and if you talk to many experts, even those who are Democrat friends, they're having a hard time articulating what that exactly means. It's subject to interpretation of those who are in power and running things that could be just about anything that a business does, could possibly impact the carbon footprint, could possibly impact the environment in some way or another. And we just felt like that was a bridge way too far. So, again, we're not at all opposed to debating these issues, to working together with the federal government to come up with reasonable policies. We recognize that we're not going to agree on everything, but that's how our country was set up so that we would have a give and take, not just between branches of government, judicial, legislative and executive, but also between federal and state. That federalism aspects in our minds far too often digresses to just the federal government, ending up taking too much power and control over the everyday lives of average Americans, and that's why we filed that suit, Jim.
We're not at all opposed to debating these issues, to working together with the federal government to come up with reasonable policies. We recognize that we're not going to agree on everything, but that's how our country was set up so that we would have a give and take, not just between branches of government, judicial, legislative and executive, but also between federal and state.
Jim Schultz: Likewise, General, you took on the Biden Administration on the on the decision to halt oil and gas leases on federal lands. I imagine that has some serious impact on a state like yours, is that right?
Sean Reyes: Tremendous, billions of dollars. That fund, by the way, very bipartisan programs, education, environmental programs and local government. By unilaterally acting this way, they are impacting our ability to protect and to serve our citizens. What people don't realize in states out in the west, like Utah, they said, well, it's just limited to these are federal leases only on public lands, on federal lands. Well, 60 percent of Utah, are federal lands, Jim. And then so many of those lands are interspersed amongst state lands and private property that even if it's only 60 percent, there's a checkerboard of impact that effectively shuts down development. Again, this tax base and this opportunity for us to really have autonomy, to be able to run our state in a responsible way that benefits all Utahns, whether they're Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, it doesn't matter. So this, again, flows more into the camp of the federal government trying to dictate to the states and take away our ability for our local businesses, our small businesses who are reliant on that sector; so much of our infrastructure that's reliant: education and otherwise, those programs. Again, we, not just the state of Utah, but the support of Native American tribes in the state, and others who all benefit and who have invested a lot into the infrastructure for these types of leases, we can go into the technical aspects, the legal aspects of it, it violates federal law that mandates quarterly leases. But again, in terms of the policy and why these things mean so much to us at the state level and why our federal delegation is fighting so hard against these types of policies, Jim, that's it. I don't think we're unreasonable. Again, we're not didactic. This is not a zero sum game. One or the other is just we have to be able to come together and reason together and come up with policies that all stakeholders are having a say in. So whether it's Utah, the monument designations at our level social cost of carbon, whether it's HR1 when it comes to voting or these moratoria on leases and many other issues, these are national issues at one level and also very local issues as well, Jim.
Jim Schultz: General, thank you so much for coming on. We're just about going to wrap up, and I just want to thank you for taking the time to coming on Eyes on Washington with Holland & Knight and myself. We'd love to have you back on some other time, and thank you for all the good work you're doing as a public servant.
Sean Reyes: Thank you, Jim, thanks Holland & Knight. And regardless of whether your state AG, whoever you are out there listening, is a Democrat or Republican, send him a note of thanks. They're working hard. We work a lot together across party lines and we get a lot done. I know they're working hard to protect you, so be nice to your AG. Thanks, Jim.
To hear more about what state attorneys general are prioritizing across the country, listen to the other episodes in this series.