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Acting AG Barbara Underwood first woman to hold post, officials say

Barbara Underwood, right, is sworn in as acting

Barbara Underwood, right, is sworn in as acting New York attorney general on Tuesday. Credit: New York Attorney General's Office

Barbara Underwood, the state’s solicitor general for more than a decade, has taken the reins as acting New York attorney general — the first woman to serve as the state’s chief legal officer, officials said.

Underwood, 73, temporarily will run the daily operations of the attorney general’s office after the resignation of Eric T. Schneiderman.

“The work of this office is critically important,” Underwood said in a statement. “Our office has never been stronger, and this extraordinarily talented, dedicated, and tireless team of public servants will ensure that our work continues without interruption.”

Schneiderman, a two-term Democrat who had been seeking re-election in November, announced his resignation after four previous romantic partners told The New Yorker magazine that he physically assaulted them. Schneiderman denied the allegations but conceded they will prevent him from continuing to run the office.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday called Underwood “totally competent” and said the office was in “fine hands” in the interim. As solicitor general, Underwood was designated as the next-in-line successor to run the office in Schneiderman’s absence.

“The only good news here is the solicitor general is a top-quality person who is not running for office, so she will not be playing politics,” Cuomo said as he toured the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge in Tarrytown. “She’ll just be doing the job.”

He added: “It’s not as if the attorney general’s office is rudderless in the meantime.”

Cuomo, a former state attorney general, appointed Underwood as state solicitor general in January 2007, representing the attorney general’s office in cases before appellate courts and state Supreme Court.

Before that appointment, Underwood served as counsel and chief assistant to U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York, supervising a staff of more than 150 attorneys in Brooklyn and Central Islip.

In 1998, then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno appointed Underwood as the nation’s principal deputy solicitor general. During the first half of 2001 — the final months of her tenure in that job — Underwood served as acting solicitor general, the first woman to hold that post.

She has argued 20 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including a 2009 victory for then-state Attorney General Cuomo to hold national banks responsible for potential racial discrimination in fair-lending laws and a 2001 win upholding congressional campaign expenditure limits.

Underwood was first assistant to Zachary Carter when he was U.S. attorney for the Eastern District from 1993 to 1999.

Carter, New York City corporation counsel, called Underwood “a brilliant lawyer who has devoted her professional life to serving the criminal justice system. Her north star has always been doing the right thing under all circumstances.”

A native of Evansville, Indiana, Underwood grew up in Belleville, New Jersey, and received a bachelor’s degree from Radcliffe College and a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center.

She clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and was a professor at Yale Law School, where she was among the first women to get tenure, according to a 1998 profile in The New York Times.

Underwood also has been a visiting professor at New York University School of Law and an adjunct professor at Brooklyn Law School, and she has held executive posts in the Queens and Brooklyn district attorneys’ offices, according to the state attorney general’s office.

A former trial attorney in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, Underwood once served as chair of the Council on Criminal Justice of the New York City Bar Association.

Underwood is married to Martin Halpern, a poet and playwright. They have one son.

With Yancey Roy

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