While Earley was negotiating the state's largest electric rate reduction and rebate earlier this year, his office was helping craft a landmark law to deregulate the industry and open up competition to utilities from other states.
Representatives of the industry contend, and consumers concede, that deregulation was inevitable. But they disagree on the attorney general's performance on the issue.
The industry says Earley's lieutenants were tough but fair during the proceedings.
Eva Tieg, Virginia Power's chief lobbyist, says Earley went "toe-to-toe" with the utility to extract the best deal for customers. But some consumer activists say he could have protected their interests better.
The deregulation law includes tough anti-fraud measures championed by Earley's lawyers, but activists say it also permits the utilities to keep charging customers for many of the equipment and construction costs they incurred over decades to provide electricity. Those consumer advocates fear utilities will profit unduly from the arrangement.
And to the dismay of consumer advocates, the law locks in electric rates through 2007 until full competition takes place, removing the possibility of any further rate reduction.
"Had he weighed in a little more, we might have gotten a better deal," says David Rubinstein, vice chairman of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council. "He took a position on electric restructuring that was more accommodating to industry interests than we would like, but he's not anti-consumer. He did listen."
Last December, as private landfills in Virginia swelled with New York City garbage, Earley issued a legal opinion suggesting the General Assembly could craft legislation regulating trash as long as it treated all waste equally, no matter where it originated.
Armed with the opinion, the legislature overwhelmingly passed popular laws capping the amount of waste that landfills can accept and banning garbage barges on Virginia's major rivers.
Gov. Gilmore, a former attorney general who led the fight for the legislation, signed the bill after Earley pronounced it legally sound. A number of lawyers had said the measure was unconstitutional because its practical effect was to limit out-of-state waste only.
Waste-haulers sued the state, and a federal judge this summer stopped the laws from taking effect. Earley then tried dragging New York City as a legal party into the fracas.
U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer responded by chastising the state. "In the back of my mind," he said, "there's an echo saying: 'Are there still lawyers at the attorney general's office?' This is bordering on frivolous."
Earley, known for his even-temperedness, takes the judge's comments in stride."'We still think the issues of public policy and that's Virginia being able to manage the health of its environment on all fronts is very important," he says.
"We think we have a reasonable chance of winning in the courts, although it's clear it's a tough case."
A number of federal courts have ruled bans on so-called "partial-birth" abortion unconstitutional because their vague wording could prohibit any number of widely used procedures now protected by the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision.
In 1998, Earley, a staunch abortion foe, issued a legal opinion defending the language of Virginia's recently adopted law as "plain and unambiguous."
A federal judge disagreed last year and kept the law from taking effect a decision that was overruled on appeal.
Then, after a full trial, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne declared the law unconstitutional in July because of its broad wording.
Earley sought and won a rare injunction from a federal appellate court that keeps the law in effect until an appeal is heard.
Pro-choice groups say Earley has let his personal views on abortion interfere with his judgment as a lawyer on a measure that has had almost no success in the courts across the country.
But thanks to one of the most conservative appellate courts in the nation, Earley has gotten further than just about any other attorney general.
"Nobody has had the success he's had," says former Virginia Attorney General Richard Cullen. "He's still alive. That's obviously a win."
Besides, Cullen adds, voters knew that when they elected Earley two years ago, they were getting someone who passionately opposed abortion.
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