Republican Attorney General Tim Fox left office Monday after leading the Montana Department of Justice for two four-year terms. Fox spoke with MTPR’s Shaylee Ragar about the issues he prioritized, what challenges Montana still faces and what is next.
Shaylee Ragar: Attorney general, the first question I want to ask you is, why did you become a lawyer and decide to run for public office?
Tim Fox: You know, I think primarily I became a lawyer because I wanted to use the tools and attributes that I have as a person to help other people. Ultimately, nearly half of my time as an attorney has been spent as a public servant.
You know, the best job I've ever had - I've told this to many people - is being Montana's attorney general. There are two primary reasons for that. One is I get to serve the people of Montana. Because I'm a lifelong Montanan, that means a lot to me. And then the 800 or so great public servants at the Montana Department of Justice have just been wonderful to work with.
Ragar: I want to get into some issues now. You've spent a considerable amount of time overhauling how the Department of Justice handles sexual assault investigations, including processing the backlog of evidence kits in Montana. Talk to me about why that was a priority.
Fox: Shortly after I became attorney general, there was a dispute between the United States Department of Justice - their Civil Rights Division - and the Missoula County Attorney's Office and the Missoula County commissioners that arose over issues concerning campus sexual assault at the University of Montana, my alma mater.
And I watched that from afar - at least initially - and read newspaper accounts. And then I started to get letters and calls from people saying this is a bad problem, the victims of crime are not being treated fairly.
Ultimately, what I decided was that even though I didn't have any kind of a statutory obligation to get involved, this was something that I should try to use my office and my abilities to see if I couldn't resolve it for the better. And that's what we did.
There's still a long ways to go - I think we have a lot more work to do. That's why I established the first-ever sexual assault prosecution unit in the Department of Justice, so that we can continue to focus on making the justice system work better.
Ragar: In talking about work that still needs to be done, we do know that drug offenses involving meth have been climbing in Montana over the last decade. This is something your successor, Austin Knudsen, made a major talking point in his campaign.
Why do you think that this has happened during your time in office, and do you think you've done enough to prevent it?
Fox: You know, you have to be careful with putting too much stock in campaign rhetoric.
Certainly, we've done a lot of work with the criminal interdiction teams, first-ever teams that we've established in the Montana Highway Patrol. You'll recall just earlier this year, a highway patrolman did a stop on the interstate and arrested an individual who had 70 pounds of methamphetamine.
It was all Mexican sourced, and part of the problem we have here is that our southern border has become so porous. So we have to have an all-above approach because meth has become really a scourge in our state, if not our nation. These are not problems, as I said, that have happened overnight and they won't be solved overnight.
Ragar: You recently filed an amicus brief in support of the Texas attorney general's lawsuit that sought to overturn general election results in several states. Experts have said that there is no evidence of election fraud. Why did you decide to join that suit?
Fox: We basically just asked that the Court take up the issue of what the Constitution says with respect to elections.
And I'm paraphrasing, of course, but the Constitution says that election law is to be set and established by the state legislatures. And of course, during the coronavirus, we saw lots of different actors, whether they be executive-branch holders or courts, changing election law.
And so we thought that that issue is something that the court should resolve - one way or the other - so we can finally put these issues to bed and so that the voters of the country can have some confidence in the outcome.
We certainly, as leaders, don't make our decisions based on polls or popular vote or who's calling your office more than another. These sometimes are tough decisions, and sometimes the fallout can be rather vicious. But if you look back at the whole of the time of my administration as attorney general, you'll see a lot of, I think, tough decisions, maybe some easy ones.
I defended Montana's campaign contribution limits that, frankly, people in my party tried to take down, and it was my job to defend the law and I did so all the way to the United States Supreme Court. And, as a result, I was very limited when I ran for governor as to the amount of money that I could accept from donors. I certainly wasn't going to sit back and just roll over when state statutes are contested.
Ragar: I'd like to move on to the primary election. You ran for governor this year, and lost the Republican primary race to now-governor-elect Greg Gianforte. What did you learn from that about Montana's political landscape?
Fox: Well, I learned that the system works, I learned that it's difficult to lose, I learned that Montanans are very generous of their time and their resources. And it further, I think, solidified in my mind why it is that I live here in Montana.
The other thing I learned is it's hard to campaign during a pandemic. I'm a people-person: I love to look people in the eye, take their questions, try to answer them. But we couldn't do that.
I think there still has to be some work done on campaign finance reform, so that there's a level playing field and Montanans have a better idea, when they go to the polls, just who it is that they're voting for.
But that'll be for another day, and I want to wish governor-elect Greg Gianforte all the best.
Ragar: So just to be clear, do you support Greg Gianforte as the state's next governor?
Fox: Oh, absolutely. He was kind enough to ask me to to work on some transition issues for him and so we're doing everything we can to make sure that that he will be successful, that his administration will be successful on behalf of the people of Montana.
Ragar: Is there a case that you'd like to go back and retry, or is there a cause you'd like to push harder for?
Fox: Well generally speaking, I don't have any regrets. I would have liked to have seen the case out of Billings, which was a cold case where a young girl was raped as a little girl and all these many years later, DNA evidence identified who the rapist was.
Unfortunately, the precedent out of the United States Supreme Court was, at the time, such that that man was able to get his case dismissed by a state district court and ultimately, that decision was upheld by the Montana Supreme Court.
And as you'll recall, we took that to the United States Supreme Court because we felt that the science of DNA had really justified changing the law. It was one of the toughest things I ever had to do to call her and tell her that the United States Supreme Court had declined to hear this case.
I still believe that the law needs to catch up with the science. I don't know that we did anything wrong or failed to do anything, but if I could get a redo on that case and not only get justice for the victim of that crime, but have a new precedent so that victims all across the country would now have a United States Supreme Court case - and precedent - that would allow them to have some closure and get justice for themselves, too.
Ragar: What's next for you, Attorney General Fox?
Fox: Well, I'm looking forward to some time off during the holidays to be with family, although we are not congregating as we usually do because of COVID-19.
And then, beyond that, I think what someone recently told me was find a job that you love and you'll never work another day in your life. So I'm looking forward to finding that job.
Ragar: Could that include public office?
Fox: You never say never, but right now I'm looking forward to something other than running a campaign.