John Adams

Republican private practice attorney John Adams is challenging incumbent Mark Herring for Virginia’s attorney general seat.

While Virginia’s gubernatorial race remains up in the air, with multiple candidates competing for both the Democratic and Republican nominations, the attorney general contest is slightly more straightforward.

On the Democratic side, current Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is running for reelection, touting his past work promoting equal rights, gun control, and assistance for sexual assault victims.

The Republican Party’s contender is more of an unknown, but has a great name.

Running for public office for the first time, John Adams is a lawyer for the Richmond-based private firm McGuire Woods. He became the GOP’s presumptive nominee in March as the only contender who received enough petition signatures to qualify for the June 13 primary ballot.

A former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and associate White House counsel under former President George W. Bush, Adams says he was motivated to campaign for Virginia attorney general by Herring’s decision to run for reelection, arguing that the office has become too defined by partisan politics.

According to his campaign website, Herring decided to seek a second term as attorney general in order to “fight to protect [Virginians] from the overreaches of the Trump administration.”

“I feel like the way the office has been politicized, it’s no longer really serving its function as the attorney general’s office for Virginia,” Adams said. “I thought I would run to take the politics out of the office and treat it the way it’s meant to be treated.”

Adams criticizes Herring for choosing not to defend some state laws from legal challenges after deeming them in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

During his tenure as attorney general, Herring declined to defend an amendment restricting marriage to unions between a man and a woman, citing that he felt such an action would be unconstitutional. 

“The attorney general is a servant of the people, and you need to not substitute your judgment for the will of the people,” Adams said.

Born and raised just outside of Richmond in Chesterfield County, Adams graduated from Midlothian High School and went to college at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), inspired to go into military service by his father, an Army veteran who served in the Korean War.

Adams spent four-and-a-half years in the U.S. Navy, including a deployment to Iraq during the decade-long Operation Southern Watch. He left the Navy in 2000 to attend the University of Virginia’s School of Law.

After graduating, Adams moved to Northern Virginia and served as a clerk for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge David Sentelle for the District of Columbia Circuit from 2003 to 2004 before becoming a law clerk for Associate Justice Thomas in 2006.

Adams joined the Bush White House in 2007 as an associate counsel to the president, a role in which he primarily dealt with issues out of the Department of Defense and State Department, according to his McGuire Woods profile.

After leaving the White House in 2008, Adams returned to the Richmond area and served as a federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of Virginia with the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Adams shifted to a private practice in 2010, when he was hired by McGuire Woods.

The former assistant U.S. attorney believes that his experience in a variety of legal roles – for both the public and private sector, both prosecution and defense – makes him a well-rounded candidate for the attorney general’s seat.

He also promises to take the same approach to the office regardless of whether Virginia’s new governor is a Democrat or Republican.

“I would provide the same legal advice to a Democratic governor as I would to a Republican governor,” Adams said. “When asked for legal opinions, I would play it right down the middle. What does the law say? What are you allowed to do?”

Though Adams has worked on a range of both civil and criminal cases, his most high-profile case is perhaps the 2014 Hobby Lobby case.

Burwell et al. v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. revolved around the question of whether for-profit companies can deny coverage for contraception in employment-based healthcare plans under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) required employers to provide some kinds of preventative care, including contraception, but provided exemptions for religious institutions.

According to McGuire Woods, Adams represented 15 U.S. Congress members in an amicus brief written in support of Hobby Lobby, and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the corporation, striking down the ACA’s contraception mandate.

Adams was also involved in a similar 2015 case called Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell, when he argued on behalf of a group of nuns.

Though these two cases touched on continuing national debates about healthcare and women’s rights, Adams says that he does not consider them particularly controversial.

“I think Democrats are stretching to find something to say about me that they can tell their base a reason to be mad,” Adams said. “…To me, those cases have to do with the religious liberty of a family-owned company and an order of nuns, and the idea that John Adams wants to limit women’s access to forms of birth control is laughable.”

Adams says tackling the ongoing heroin and opioid epidemic and cracking down on violent crime, especially in cities, will be his top priorities if he is elected as attorney general.

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