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A personal note, but one I am obliged to share.

I learned today about the death of Tom Emerson—former assistant attorney general, mentor, role model, and friend.

Tom was a career staff employee in the "Opinions Branch" of the Kentucky Attorney General's Office. A branch that prided itself on its independence from external political influence, it has long since ceased to exist in more recent "opinion by demand" administrations.

In the eighties, he was the designated open records/open meetings AAG—the third assistant attorney general to hold that position in an era when there was little caselaw to guide the Office.

He wore many other hats in the then-demanding world of advisory opinions—writing to an appreciative legal community on municipal law, conflicts of interest, incompatible offices, marriage law, animal law, special districts, interlocal agreements, and others subjects.

It is doubtful that anyone in the current attorney general's office has expertise in any of these areas—much less all of these areas.

It was through open records and open meetings that I got to know Tom.

I arrived in the attorney general's office in 1991—long before automated research was an option—and undertook the challenge of mastering what seemed like an overwhelming body of internal agency interpretation of the open records and open meetings law.

Tom—whose reputation as a curmudgeon preceded him—took me under his wing, regularly debating points of open records and open meetings law with me, sharing his knowledge of the Office and its traditions, and instilling his pride in that office and those traditions in me.

He was fond of saying that he served the Office of the Attorney General and not the person who held the Office—words that border on insubordination, if not sacrilege, in these time.

Tom was right. The law was our lodestar, and we were ethically bound to resist compromising on matters of legal principle.

He once told me that the first time I compromised, the administration would know they had me. I reminded myself of his words each time I advocated for the open records or open meetings laws against opposing forces that grew increasingly threatening in later administrations.

This did not endear me to those administrations.

In time, commitment to legal principle became a liability. What had, in the past, been viewed as spirited legal debate was viewed as insubordination.

Tom had retired from the Office of the Attorney General at that point, the dismantling of the Opinions Branch having commenced years before.

Why employ nonpartisan topical experts to write advisory opinion when partisan non-experts are so much more malleable?

But his work ethic and personal integrity guided me to the end. Never seeking advancement or an impressive title, he was content to serve the public. Never compromising on matters of principle, he was the best of role models.

I'd like to think that his model lives on in the work I do in the cause of open government. I believe he would approve.


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