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OPINION: New York's attorney general is the people's defender

Robert Abrams served four terms as attorney general, from 1979-1993, and is a partner in the law firm of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan Llp.

Choosing a new governor is such an important decision that many voters may feel less invested in our next attorney general. So does it matter who he will be? The answer is a resounding yes.

The attorney general protects you as consumers and investors, watches over the quality of the air you breathe and water you drink, guards your civil rights and the safety of your workplace. The attorney general also defends against attacks by special interests aimed at new laws and regulations that protect the public.

But perhaps one of the most interesting things about this office is that its agenda and performance is highly dependent on who the attorney general is: What are the attorney general's priorities? Does he or she have guts and independence to go after powerful interests, and the style and charisma to attract great and dedicated lawyers to the office? Does the attorney general come into the office with fresh ideas?

So, for example, when I was attorney general I filed amicus curiae briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court when there was a threat to the right of a woman to control her body, went to court to prevent anti-choice demonstrators from blocking access for women to abortion clinics, criminally prosecuted Randall Terry, head of Operation Rescue, for violating court orders, and closed down phony abortion service offices run by anti-abortion advocates luring unsuspecting women into those facilities.

I also initiated a path-breaking job-sharing program, which allowed women to work part time with full health benefits, that enabled female lawyers with small children at home to work at the attorney general's office.

New York's next attorney general has to fight for increased powers to bring public corruption cases - through executive orders from the governor and new laws from the legislature. Interestingly, the drive and determination to get a job done are probably more important than actual criminal prosecutorial experience.

In my day, I led the effort to form a Law Enforcement Council, bringing together the district attorneys, chiefs of police and sheriffs from all over the state. We successfully lobbied the legislature to get stronger laws to prosecute, convict and sentence. I was able to get a first-time felony environmental crime statute passed and we prosecuted polluters and sent them to prison. For the first time in the history of the attorney general's office, we empanelled our own grand juries, enabling us to bring cases quicker and more effectively.

Unfortunately, we continue to hear horrific stories of serious civil and human rights violations. New Yorkers are either being physically attacked or discriminated against in the workplace because of their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. An attorney general committed to vigorous enforcement can express outrage at these activities and launch high-profile investigations and legal actions to send out a message that this will not be tolerated.

So, the attorney general should be fully prepared to maximize the bully pulpit, to use the prestige and stature of the office to advocate for what is needed. Every Law Day - May 1 each year - I would choose a topic important to me and use the platform of my appearance before New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, to speak out and call for action on it.

I testified before the U.S. Congress 36 times to articulate the need for congressional action on a variety of issues, from urging the rejection of Robert Bork as a U.S Supreme Court justice to strengthening the environmental Superfund law. I introduced bills in the New York Legislature and was able to get 250 measures signed into law.

New York desperately needs good government reforms, and the next attorney general must continue the fight. He'll be in a position to advocate for stronger ethics laws for those who serve in Albany, for redistricting to be done by an independent commission, and for public financing of campaigns. By joining with good government groups, he will be able to create the coalition necessary to finally achieve these overdue changes.

The last two attorneys general have been activist, forceful leaders in launching important initiatives attacking abuses on Wall Street, in health care, student loans and mortgages. The next attorney general must keep a vigilant eye on these issues while he shapes his own priorities.

Meanwhile, the attorney general must comport himself in a manner that will bring honor and dignity to the office. His fundraising should be beyond reproach. The public's confidence needs to be restored. Two of the state's highest officers have stepped down from their posts while under fire, significant numbers of legislators have been indicted and or convicted, and the smell of scandal still permeates the corridors of power in Albany. There is great danger in not remedying this situation - not only in terms of the harm from the illegal acts, but from the continued cynicism it breeds. The worst thing for a democracy is to have corrosion of confidence and declining participation.

The attorney general is your defender and protector. This is a job that matters for New Yorkers.


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