Eric Schneiderman’s swift resignation from the Attorney General’s Office, hours after a New Yorker article detailed allegations of physical assaults against four women, has stunned his former colleagues and friends. But many said the state’s top law enforcement office, while demoralized and shocked for now, would likely see no disruption over policy and cases in the short term.
In the long term, some attorneys close to the office envision a successor who will continue the same progressive agenda that Schneiderman embraced—as long as the person comes with a sterling reputation inside and outside the office.
Kristen Clarke, a former civil rights bureau chief in the office, said New York needs an attorney general “who can lead in both their personal and professional example.” She added, “The MeToo movement has moved us into an era where there’s zero tolerance for harassment and misconduct and it’s forcing everyone to live up to a higher set of standards, and that’s a healthy thing.”
Clarke and others who knew Schneiderman said they were completely surprised by the allegations against him and saw no hint of such behavior in the office.
“I’m troubled and disturbed. I worked alongside Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for several years enforcing civil rights law, and that included work to protect victims of sexual harassment,” said Clarke, who is now president and executive director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Those who I have talked to are also deeply shocked.”
However, Clarke said, the allegations as reported “feel credible and suggest a pattern of conduct that I think is undeniable.” Schneiderman has denied the claims.
Clarke and others said they hoped a woman could fill the position in the long term. “I would love to see a woman serve as the chief law enforcement officer for the state of New York. It’s long overdue,” Clarke said.
Terri Gerstein, a former labor bureau chief in the office and now a fellow at the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program and an Open Society Foundations fellow, said her first reaction was concern about her colleagues still in the office, “because I know how disruptive” and “how unsettling it is.”
Taking on Trump
Clarke and others expressed a belief that Schneiderman’s work on some matters—including several against the Trump administration—would continue at the same pace. Schneiderman has brought a number of challenges against Trump administration regulations and actions, including those over travel bans and attempts to modify birth control coverage.
Just last month, the office filed a lawsuit to block the Trump administration from demanding citizenship information in the 2020 Census.
In perhaps his most high-profile matter, Schneiderman took up a lawsuit against Trump University, obtaining a $25 million settlement.
Speaking on the Trump matters, “there is not a state attorney general who has done more to hold this administration accountable,” Clarke said about Schneiderman, adding she’s looking for the next attorney general to “take the baton and run with it” and to forge coalitions with other states.
Gerstein said she didn’t see the movement against Trump administration efforts losing steam, due to the high talent in the office and other progressive AGs in the country. “The movement is much stronger than one person,” Gerstein said.
Some lawyers who have matters with the Attorney General’s office, which has nearly 700 attorneys, also didn’t expect to see a change in their cases or the kinds of cases that the office takes up.
“I think the Attorney General’s Office basically functions as a law enforcement agency, and while there will be some disruption briefly, I think whoever takes over will pick up in most respects where Schneiderman left off,” said criminal defense attorney Benjamin Brafman.
Still, Gregory Krakower, of counsel at Getnick & Getnick and former senior adviser and counselor to Schneiderman, noted the long-term policy will be affected by whoever the legislature selects and the public elects in office.
“The attorney general has immense discretion over affirmative litigation,” he said, including what kinds of cases to bring, over resource allocation and over settlements. “The next attorney general can determine for the affirmative cases in the office whether those cases should proceed as they are now,” or whether to drop any or settle or bring more, he said.
“If the next attorney general shares the same values and priorities as the last one, the lawsuits will move forward,” Krakower said.
Some attorneys speculated that the office may be less vocal or “grandstanding” on some cases that Schneiderman had taken particular interest in. One attorney believed that Barbara Underwood, now acting attorney general, may feel hampered in bringing new cases, considering the time and resources necessary to bring each case and the uncertainty that any successor could change directions.
End of an Era?
A progressive figure in the position is not guaranteed, noted Dennis C. Vacco, a former Republican New York attorney general and now a partner with Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman in Buffalo.
The open seat changes the prospects for Republicans in 2018, he said. “This is a seat a Republican can gain in 2018,” Vacco said. “This is a great opportunity for Republican candidates with solid credentials. When you run up against a two-term incumbent who has substantial war chests, that’s an uphill battle for a challenger. Now the playing field is going to be much more level.”
While he also doesn’t predict wholesale changes to the office in policy or direction, he said he couldn’t forecast whether an investigation into Schneiderman’s activities may cause a disruption.
Vacco said he was “stunned by how quickly it moved from allegations to resignation,” noting that Eliot Spitzer’s resignation took place two days after the disclosure that he solicited prostitutes, while Schneiderman’s resignation happened in hours.
“Schneiderman put himself out there as a champion of the #MeToo movement, so the power of these allegations is that even those who cloak themselves in the movement are not immune to it, nor should they be,” he said.
Looking for Stability
Jason Lilien, a former charities bureau chief in the Attorney General’s Office, said it’s important the next office holder is a strong leader internally—to inspire and motivate a group of attorneys “who are woefully underpaid”—and also externally, in order to work with other state prosecutors around the country and take up matters they cannot.
“The reality is that the rest of the country looks to New York to lead these matters,” said Lilien, now a partner at Loeb & Loeb.
He and others pressed the need for a stabilizing force in the office.
“It’s the hope for the legal community in New York that whomever comes in will quickly be able to stabilize the office and the situation and carry on important work that Eric Schneiderman has carried on,” Lilien said.
For now, the characteristics of the next attorney general are likely to be determined by state legislators in Albany.
A joint session of all 213 of the state Assembly and Senate members is set to make the determination. This, however, belies the realities of the state chambers: the Assembly’s 101-person Democratic majority puts a remarkable amount of control in the hands of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
The Assembly Democrats huddled early on Tuesday to hash out a strategy. According to a legislative source, a verbal agreement of cooperation has been reached between Heastie and his Republican counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader John Flanagan. The Assembly is waiting on a written confirmation that the two chambers were working together to vet candidates, according to the source.
The heads of four assembly committees—Judiciary, Consumer Affairs and Protection, Codes, and Governmental Operations—will work together to vet potential attorney general candidates. The plan is for Senate-side counterparts to join them.
Given the abrupt circumstances, no final decision has been reached on precisely how candidates will be vetted, or what the ultimate process will be. But the source said the hope was to have someone in place before the May 23 Democratic Party convention.
Colby Hamilton contributed reporting.