Had things gone differently, Maureen Hart could have been an inside-the-beltway person, breathing the politicized vapors of the seat of federal government. She grew up in Damascus, Md., near Bethesda, and during high school, she sat quietly as her father explained to the family that they were moving to Washington. “He was contrite,” she recounts. “We said, ‘That’s not a big deal, Dad. D.C.’s just 30 miles down the road.’ We didn’t even realize which Washington he was talking about.”
Hart ended up in an important government job anyhow, in that “other” Washington. She became the state’s solicitor general last year, responsible for analyzing appeals and preparing opinions for the attorney general’s office.
Hart’s father worked for the Atomic Energy Commission, formed after World War II. After several years in Maryland, he was assigned to Hanford. Hart’s family was plucked out of verdant Maryland and set down in golden-brown Eastern Washington, in Kennewick. Moving to the windswept deserts of the Columbia Plateau was not an easy transition, Hart recalls. “At the time, at 16 years old,” she says wryly, “I wasn’t very appreciative of the opportunity.”
“What little exposure I’d had to the Northwest was about the western part of the state,” explains Hart, 55. “I remember the first time I saw tumbleweeds blowing across our driveway. I’d only seen that on ‘Bonanza.” The region grew on her. “After a while, I came to appreciate it as beautiful. And the atmosphere was much more casual and relaxed than in Montgomery County.”
At Washington State University, Hart majored in political science, then went on to law school at the University of Puget Sound. “I got a job offer as a staff attorney with Union Carbide in New York City, and I spent a year there. But New York was not my cup of tea,” Hart says. “I had an application in with the attorney general’s office in Olympia, and they called me and asked me if I could come for an interview.” Hart was offered the job, and has served four attorneys general. Two years ago, Attorney General Rob McKenna appointed her the office’s solicitor general.
That broad legal terrain—like the openness of the Eastern Washington landscape—suits her. “The AG’s office represents all of state government: dependent children, collection, taxes, environment, and so on. I’ve had the opportunity to practice in all sorts of areas I would have never believed,” Hart says. “I know people in the AG’s office who only do one kind of work. For me, though, I have more of a generalist’s approach.”
Her work has made Hart no stranger to the land’s highest court. In 2000, she successfully advocated for the state’s law that holds sexually violent offenders beyond their sentences, as long as the state provides treatment. “There’s a need to both give these folks treatment and assist them, and also an understanding that commitment in this context is crucial to public safety,” she says.
That was her first appearance in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. “It was a great honor,” she recalls. “The level of preparation was awesome.” Hart had spent much of the previous year as a U.S. Supreme Court intern, making it a bit less daunting to argue in front of the court. “However,” she adds, “if I were to say I wasn’t nervous, that would be a big ol’ whopper.”
This January, she helped McKenna prepare for the state’s case against the Washington Education Association. Under a state law approved by voters in 1992, unions need permission from nonmembers (who pay fees to be included in the WEA’s collective bargaining) before spending their fees on political causes. Last year, the state Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional
and the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. A decision is expected soon.
Hart’s efforts to preserve funding for programs providing legal representation for those who cannot afford counsel brought her a WSBA Award of Merit in 2003. Despite 28 years of working for the government, she is not jaded. “I’ve been impressed with the vast majority of people in government who are legitimately trying to do their best,” she says. But Hart is realistic about the limits of governmental rectitude. “I don’t have a Pollyannaish view of government,” she says. “Government doesn’t always make the right decisions, but it tries.”