Voters in New York state are set to choose their next state attorney general in less than two weeks on Tuesday, Nov. 6.
The office, currently held by Attorney General Barbara Underwood, has tremendous power to litigate both state and federal issues involving many players, from a business owner in Buffalo to President Donald Trump.
New York City Public Advocate Letitia “Tish” James, a Democrat, is seeking to become the next person to hold the office. She would be the first woman and person of color elected to the position.
James started her career as a public defender with the Legal Aid Society. Since then, she’s been elected to the New York City Council and has served as the New York City public advocate since 2014.
The New York Law Journal developed a series of questions relevant to our readers and voters statewide and sent identical versions to both James and her Republican opponent, Ropes & Gray partner Keith Wofford.
Wofford’s answers to our Candidate Questionnaire may be read here.
Here are the answers we received from James, edited only to conform to NYLJ and ALM style.
How would you organize and staff the office and secure proper resources and authority to reflect your priorities?
- Should the powers of the Attorney General’s Office be expanded? Are there any areas where the tools afforded by the Legislature to the AG are too limited?
Yes, without a doubt. First and foremost, the attorney general needs original jurisdiction to prosecute public corruption, without a referral from the governor, the comptroller, or an agency head. The Legislature should also codify the attorney general’s role as special prosecutor when police officers kill unarmed civilians. This mandate should also be expanded to include when civilians are grievously injured in interactions with police officers and when police officers allegedly commit hate crimes or sexual assault. And now that the Court of Appeals has ruled that the Martin Act’s statute of limitations is three years, it’s clear the Legislature must extend the statute of limitations to six years.
- Are there any bureaus of the Attorney General’s Office that you think are currently underutilized?
Attorney General Underwood is doing tremendous work on cases involving the Trump administration—from the lawsuit against the Trump Foundation for violations of campaign finance laws and self-dealing to challenging rollbacks of key environmental regulations and the Affordable Care Act. I will continue that work, while at the same time doubling down on rooting out public corruption in Albany and taking on the housing crisis.
We will both boost the resources dedicated to the “Operation Integrity” anti-corruption task force with the Comptroller’s Office and explore new ways to use existing powers under Executive Law 63(12), the False Claims Act, and the attorney general’s broad oversight of nonprofits to take on legislators, businesses, and charities involved in self-dealing. We will also build the Housing Bureau’s capacity, so we can better protect New Yorkers in regards to rent protections, zombie properties, predatory lending, improper foreclosures, tenant harassment, and more.
- Are there any particular divisions of the office or resources that you would like to reallocate or reduce?
The Attorney General’s Office is a high-functioning law firm with hundreds of attorneys. But we can always do better—and I think we can modernize the focus of some parts of the office. We must explore how new technologies can be put to use by the office, for example, by automating co-op/condo conversion applications. We must also ensure there is better coordination among regional offices and between these offices and the various bureaus.
- Are there areas of the state that you view as underserved where you would like to open or beef up regional offices?
As a former assistant attorney general in charge of a regional office, I know how important these outposts are. They serve as a direct line of communication between constituents and the office, and they help spot trends like an uptick in consumer fraud before they become crises. I will certainly explore expanding the role and the reach of regional offices, and looking at how regional offices can collaborate with legal services providers when I’m attorney general.
What is the proper scope of the attorney general’s power to punish and deter public officials’ misconduct?
- Does the office need broader grants of authority to stamp out corrupt practices in Albany?
Yes. Unequivocally. When I am in office, I will push the Legislature to give the attorney general original jurisdiction over public corruption—but I won’t wait for them to act. I will explore creative ways to use existing powers to tackle corruption, including beefing up the “Operation Integrity” anti-corruption task force with the Comptroller’s Office and using Executive Law 63(12), the False Claims Act, and the attorney general’s oversight of nonprofits.
- The Legislature approved a new commission to investigate prosecutorial misconduct by the state’s district attorneys this year. Do you support such a commission and do you think the AG’s office should also be subject to its review?
Yes, I do support the commission. The creation of this commission was long overdue. As a former public defender, I know that the vast majority of prosecutors are committed to enforcing the law and ensuring that justice is done, but I am also mindful of the immense power that every prosecutor holds. This legislation balances those two needs, and makes our system of justice more fair.
What is the proper role of the attorney general in addressing gender power imbalances?
- What should be the attorney general’s role in addressing sexual harassment in both the private and public sectors?
The #MeToo movement has shown sexual harassment in the workplace is pervasive—from Hollywood to Wall Street. Women need a champion who will investigate, legislate, and litigate to stand up for their rights at work. I pushed New York City’s Department of Correction to adopt policies to reduce sexual assaults by guards against inmates. As attorney general, I will ensure that victims of sexual assault are fully heard and will prosecute those in power who try to get away with it. And I will work to pass laws against mandatory nondisparagement agreements and investigate and sue businesses with a culture of abuse.
- How would you protect the rights of New Yorkers to equal pay?
Equal pay for equal work should be more than a slogan. It should be reality. As New York City public advocate, I passed legislation to ban questions about salary history during the hiring process, which perpetuate gender-based pay disparities. From advocating for similar legislation statewide to creating a wage discrimination task force and taking legal action against any company that discriminates against workers, I will use the full weight of the Attorney General’s Office to fight the gender wage gap.
How does the national political environment affect the attorney general’s priorities?
- How would you evaluate when it is appropriate to challenge a federal policy initiative?
The test is whether a federal policy hurts New Yorkers, and in the age of Donald Trump, there are many, many policies that hurt residents of the Empire State. Repealing DACA, rolling back environmental regulations and the Affordable Care Act, loosening oversight of for-profit colleges, these are just some examples of policies that have a real, negative impact on our state. The attorney general has an obligation to fight back.
- Do you approve of the state attorney general’s active role in litigating against policies of the Trump administration?
Yes. Attorneys general across the country have shown that the law is the firmest pillar of our democracy—that it is the best way to stand up to Donald Trump’s harmful and possibly illegal policies. I look forward to joining them in defending our rights.
Can you share with Law Journal readers something they don’t know about you that reflects your life and career as a lawyer?
- Who would you look to as a role model for public service, especially in a legal or law enforcement capacity?
A few of my role models are Eleanor Holmes Norton, former Congress member Barbara Jordan, former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Jane Bolin, and former Attorney General Robert Abrams, who endorsed my campaign earlier this month. Each of them served with independence, with respect for the law, and with a clear vision for progress, attributes which I aspire to every day, and which I hope to bring to the Attorney General’s Office.
- What lawyers have been the most important mentors in your career?
My most important mentors were my professors at Howard University School of Law. This is the institution which educated Thurgood Marshall and helped dismantle legalized segregation in the United States. There is a clear connection between Howard, Brown v. Board of Education, and the progress we have made—and are defending today. The school has deep roots in social justice, and our professors were adamant that they were training us to be engineers of social change. That mandate has stuck with me.
- Can you point to a case you have worked on as a lawyer that has shaped your outlook on the legal profession and the rule of law?
As a public defender, I saw firsthand how unfairly some New Yorkers are treated by our criminal justice system, and I saw that just because you cannot afford a fancy lawyer, you should not be afforded any less justice. These experiences stuck with me, and they informed my decision to serve the public.
One case that has stuck with me was representing an unaccompanied minor seeking asylum in the United States in 2015. At the time, I was calling on lawyers across New York City to work pro bono and represent unaccompanied minors, and I wanted to do my part as well. We were able to secure Special Immigrant Juvenile Status for him, and he now lives in New York with relatives. He just graduated from high school.