Sometimes a sea change occurs and no one notices. Actually, a lot of times. Especially in politics and the legal profession. Especially in the last few decades. Especially in the United States of America, and even within that, especially in New York State.
In our youth as a lawyer in New York we had the notion that the Attorney General was an office of high integrity and professional responsibility and the “lawyer’s lawyer” who, because he was elected independently from the governor, would stand up to political pressure and do the right thing. We thought, in particular, that if a lawyer had a problem with a prosecutor the Attorney General’s office was the go-to.
Was this naive?
The history of the office over the last half century or so is interesting. Currently, it seems the AG is the heir apparent to the governorship, a virtual governor in waiting. But this is not the tradition. See here. Starting with John Bennett in 1931 no New York AG went on to the governorship until Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo both did so in the first decade of this century. In between, Louis Lefkowitz was AG for 22 years and apparently never even thought about running for governor. Bob Abrams went almost four terms as AG, resigned, and never ran for governor. Although he thought about it. Apparently.
What do we make of this? We think it amounts to a trend towards increasing politicization of the AG’s office, especially within the last 20 years. And what does that mean? It means an office that bows to political pressure. Who can effectively bring political pressure?
And as we have noted many times, there is no countervailing political pressure. There is no lobby for criminal defendants.
What is the net result of this politicization, a politicization that tends in only one direction and which in the end favors institutional litigants and especially the government? Many things, we suppose. But from a professional perspective, it represents a profound loss, at least when measured against our earlier and apparently naive impression that the AG’s office was in part there to weigh in to check prosecutorial excesses like this.
The AG’s response to that, by the way, has been rote and reflexive opposition. Mindless, really.
Then of course there is this. Does the AG’s office care about sexual abuse? No. Not per se. Only when there is an apparently advantageous political angle.
So getting back to the latest kerfuffle over now governor Cuomo – who, like governor Spitzer before him, incubated in the NY AG’s office and now likewise finds himself fending off allegations of sexual misconduct* – we can confidently conclude that the current occupant of the office has a political agenda dressed up as a moral purpose, not an actual moral purpose.
And we can also confidently conclude that in Rochester if the AG had wanted – really, truly wanted – to get an indictment against one or more police officers involved in the now infamous Daniel Prude scandal, she would have been able to do so.
This is the inevitable loss of trust that ensues when political and career considerations supplant moral and professional obligations.
What is Letitia James’ agenda? Presumably the governor’s mansion. But we’ll see.
*Lest we overlook an important tidbit, we should also recall Eric Schneiderman.