Profile: William Mercer (MT ’84), Former Acting Associate Attorney General

By Adam Harbison (AL ’07)

mercerWilliam W. Mercer (MT
’84) served in the US Department of Justice for twenty years in Montana and
Washington, D.C. In Montana, he served as United States Attorney from 2001 through
2009 and as Assistant US Attorney from 1994 to 2001. He was responsible for
natural resources litigation, prosecution of criminal cases, and appellate
practice on behalf of the United States. From June 2005 through July 2007, Bill
served Acting Associate Attorney General and Principal Associate Deputy
Attorney General. As Acting Associate Attorney General, he served as the third-ranking
official in the US Department of Justice under President George W. Bush and had
oversight responsibilities for five litigating divisions (Antitrust, Civil,
Civil Rights, Environment and Natural Resources and Tax) with criminal and
civil cases. A native Montanan, Bill was a 1984 Truman from the University of
Montana. He received his MPA from the Kennedy School at Harvard University in
1988 and his JD from George Mason University in 1993. Today, Bill is an
attorney practicing energy, environment, and natural resources law at Holland
& Hart in Billings, Montana. He is a recipient of the Truman Foundation’s
two prestigious alumni awards, the Elmer B. Staats Award and the Judge Joseph
E. Stevens, Jr. Award.

Growing up in rural Montana, Bill Mercer became interested
in public service at a young age. As a child, his father was elected and served
in the Montana state legislature, which is what first piqued his interest in
politics and public policy issues. Throughout high school and college, he
pursued student leadership positions, including Boys Nation and student
government. Even though he attended the University of Montana, he was
privileged to get early experience in Washington, DC through his activities,
and this is what really led him to start following national politics. Bill
believes that winning the Truman Scholarship was a huge development in his
life. He had always intended to go to law school in Montana, but the financial
advantages that the Truman presented allowed him to consider other opportunities.
He eventually decided to pursue a MPA from the Kennedy School at Harvard
University. While at Harvard, his academic advisor was Dick Thornburgh, who
served as Governor of Pennsylvania from 1979 to 1987.

Upon finishing his studies at Harvard, Bill was selected as a
Presidential Management Intern (now known as the Presidential Management
Fellowship) to served two years working at the US Department of Treasury.
Meanwhile, his former advisor was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to
serve as Attorney General. Bill was then able to move over to the Department of
Justice, where he stayed through the transition period to the Clinton
Administration. When his father became ill in 1994, Bill was anxious to get
back home to Montana as soon as possible. Meanwhile, his experience at the
Justice Department helped him secure a position for the US Attorney’s Office in
the state. After serving for several years, he was appointed by President
George W. Bush to serve as the US Attorney for Montana and later as the Acting
Associate Attorney General, the 3rd highest ranking position at DOJ.

Reflecting on his more than twenty years of service with the
Justice Department, Bill is convinced that the ability to evaluate a program’s
impact is an essential skill for anyone entering public service, especially in
government. He thinks that the quantitative skill sets that are developed in
graduate programs are essential for analyzing the effectiveness and efficiency
of programs that have been allocated public funding in order to determine if a
program is accomplishing its goals, is having unintended consequences, or is
failing. Bill said he was initially surprised to find that this kind of impact
evaluation was not utilized to the degree that he would have expected at the
federal level within agencies. Over time, he realized that there is not a
strong audience for such an independent evaluation as you have federal
agencies, elected officials, and organizations that receive federal funding
that would not be in favor of seeing headlines in a local newspaper proclaiming
that a federal grant or earmark has had no effects on a key issue or problem.

Looking at the general political ideologies, he made a personal
observation of why this issue does not gain prominence with either Republicans
or Democrats. Bill said, “Conservatives often believe that much of federal spending
is illegitimate in the first place, and an impact analysis would be a risk if
it showed a program was really successful in reaching goals and building
collaborative efforts.” On other hand, he said, “There are lots of people who
identify as liberals who believe that all government spending is good and that
there is not a need to quantify benefits comparing narrow or extensive spending
on programs.” Under his political observation, conservatives would run the risk
of being attacked for not supporting the funding of programs that really make a
difference and liberals run the risk of being challenged for supporting
frivolous spending when it comes to ineffective programs. Moreover, Bill
believes that there is no champion of this practice within agencies. He feels
that program evaluation should be essential to government, but the culture of
resisting change at federal agencies makes this a huge problem that needs
attention.

As Montana is a very rural state, Bill Mercer believed that
his work as the US Attorney could be used to improve the quality of life for
rural Montanans. He cited the methamphetamine problem as an issue of major
importance. During his time in DC, he noticed the lack of a concentration of
people from rural states when he would attend DOJ or interagency meetings. In
the 1990s, Congressional and DOJ drug policy efforts were mainly targeting
crack cocaine enforcement and prosecutions. However, meth use was becoming a
huge problem in the rural West and South but got almost no attention from
Washington, DC. Meanwhile, meth was tearing apart the fabric of rural
communities with increased crime, drug overdoses, and related problems, including
drug endangered children and the environmental hazards associated with meth
labs. Bill stated, “There was just no resonance for meth as an issue in DC.” Instead,
rural states had to take the lead on driving the promotion of the problem and developing
solutions. In Montana, he worked both on prosecuting offenders and providing
public awareness on the dangers of the highly addictive drug. Bill believes
that this is still a major problem for rural areas and that people should be
cautious of saying that we have beat meth. According to his experience, the
best way to continue dealing with methamphetamine abuse is to keep the focus on
prevention and education with young people.

Montana has a huge Native American population with seven
reservations. Bill put together extensive public outreach efforts with the
Native American community around the issues of public safely. He said, “While I
don’t always agree with the current administration, I am glad to see they are
still focused on public safety in Indian Country.” He also expressed a belief
that the quality of the environment is the most important reason why people
live in rural areas. They may make less money but have a higher quality of life
and really love nature and being outdoors. For the sake of rural citizens, the
protection of the environment must be a priority. Bill was very involved in the
prosecution of environmental crimes in Montana, and during his tenure, his
office handled considerably more cases in this area than most other states did.
He feels strongly that people must know that if they destroy wetlands or
violate Clean Air act there are consequences to be paid. “Our national
treasures are based in rural areas, so it is important to protect the
environment there,” he said.

When asked about how things have changed since he was first
selected as a Truman, Bill immediately pointed to the financial value of the
scholarship. With the Truman Scholarship and other limited funding sources,
Bill managed to complete his undergraduate, graduate and law degrees with only
$5,000 of debt. Twenty years later, he (and all Truman Scholars) has seen the
cost of higher education skyrocket and now sees the challenges that younger
Truman Scholars face as they weigh the consequences of taking on lots of
student debt and how it can make public service a difficult financial decision.
However, Bill said, “For those who have been privileged enough to win the
Truman, the real benefit is the alumni network of people that can be drawn upon
from around the country.”

Bill has been involved with the Truman Foundation for a long
time as a Senior Scholar at TSLW from 1992-1996, as a founding member of TSA, and
as a winner of both of the Foundation’s alumni awards. He stresses that the
Truman community provides a vital service as scholars can talk to people about
what they are currently doing or would like to be doing in the future. “The
Truman network is a community of common and diverse interests with a strong
knowledge base that can be a tremendous resource for everyone,” he said. Like
many Trumans, Bill is excited by the prospect of the community’s first US
Senator Chris Coons, especially given his integration within the Truman
community. As Trumans, Bill believes it is important that we all take advantage
of our opportunities to be better by engaging with each other to shed light on
important issues.

As a piece of final advice for Scholars, Bill recalled times
in the life of the Truman Foundation where scholars were told in regards to
Presidential appointments that there are not that many and you cannot build
your career around that. He certainly did not imagine himself being recommended
by his Senator to President George W. Bush to serve as US Attorney, and he said
the odds for a rural US Attorney to be appointed to a senior DOJ position would
have not been likely at all. He stressed, “There are definitely opportunities
for federal appointments in DC and in the states, just as there are great nonprofit
leadership opportunities.” Scholars should have an idea of their career goals
and never lose sight of what they want to achieve. Even for young scholars, he
definitely does not think it is wise to say there are things that are off
limits. For Bill, there are just too many examples of people having a strategic
vision, and even if it does not exactly turn out the way they envisioned, there
are always exciting opportunities to pursue.

Phillip Adam Harbison (AL
’07) is a graduate of The University of Alabama. He also is a 2010 George
Mitchell Scholar and just recently completed a MSc in Rural Development from
Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. Formerly employed at the
Appalachian Regional Commission, Adam recently joined the office of
Representative David McKinley (R-WV) as legislative assistant/projects
coordinator.

 

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