The Hour of the Attorneys General

This article appears in the Spring 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine.
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On a Tuesday night in early February, not three weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, three federal judges in San Francisco heard arguments about whether to halt his first major policy undertaking. Trump had issued an executive order banning hundreds of thousands of travelers from entering the country, including citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, and all refugees. As many as 60,000 individuals had their visas revoked. Almost immediately, a pair of Democratic attorneys general, Washington state’s Bob Ferguson and Minnesota’s Lori Swanson, brought suit against Trump’s executive order, arguing it violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law as well as the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, harmed all Washington and Minnesota businesses and communities, and was “undermining [their] sovereign interest” as welcoming destinations for immigrants and refugees.

More than 100,000 people from across the nation sat glued to a YouTube livestream of the legal hearing. The high-profile courtroom drama unfolded amid massive protests against Trump in streets and airports. Besides Democratic attorneys general, civil rights groups and private lawyers filed dozens of other lawsuits in federal courts across the country. A few days later, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit blocked Trump’s executive order, ruling that it failed to advance U.S. national security. So went the opening round in what will surely be a continuing legal struggle over Trump’s powers.

As millions of Americans steel for years of conflict with a Republican-controlled Congress and an authoritarian president, Democratic state attorneys general—politicians with independent authority to sue on behalf of their states—are expected to take a leading role on the front lines of the mobilized resistance. Though their numbers have fallen in recent years, the 21 Democratic AGs now in office have pledged to work together to use their powers to protect citizens from executive overreach. They will be a crucial source of support in fighting a president who says he will deport millions of undocumented immigrants and deregulate everything from the banking industry to the environment.

The Supreme Court and, ironically enough, Republican state attorneys general have paved the way for the Democratic AGs. Thanks to the Supreme Court, the states have stronger grounds for contesting federal authority than they did in the past, and during the Obama administration Republican state AGs honed the legal playbook for challenging federal laws, regulations, and executive orders. Democratic AGs may now be able to use that same playbook to contain Trump, especially because the Republican Congress shows little evidence of serving as an independent check on the executive branch. Since Democrats at the federal level have no power to conduct investigations, much less bring indictments, state AGs have been propelled into the forefront as a check and balance against one-party national government.

Since the election, Democratic AGs have begun other actions besides opposing Trump’s travel ban. The day before his inauguration, six Democratic AGs filed a motion to defend an EPA pollution rule being challenged in court by the fossil fuel industry. Four days later, 16 Democratic AGs filed to intervene in a case regarding the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent agency the Obama administration had been defending in court. Many suspect Trump will fire the CFPB’s director and downgrade the agency. “The CFPB has been the cop on the block, and as Republicans try to defund and kill off the agency, there will be a huge gap to be filled,” says Caroline Fredrickson, the president of the American Constitution Society. “AGs will be a major part of that response.”

AGs have also been preparing to defend health-care rights. Massachusetts AG Maura Healey has taken the lead in organizing a multistate working group to protect the Affordable Care Act, and New York AG Eric Schneiderman reintroduced legislation to protect access to free birth control for New Yorkers as afforded by the health-care law.

AGs have been beefing up their offices. New York—already one of the largest AG units, with nearly 700 lawyers—is hiring two new senior attorneys to focus on issues related to Trump’s presidency. Schneiderman already has an ongoing investigation of the Trump Foundation. In February, Maryland’s Democratic-controlled legislature moved to expand the authority of their state AG for the first time since 1864, citing the unique danger posed by Trump. Maryland lawmakers are also considering appropriating $1 million more per year to the state AG office and hiring five additional attorneys to take on the federal government.

AGs are under no illusion: It’s all hands on deck.

STATE ATTORNEYS GENERAL trace their roots to 17th-century England, where the office of AG became independent of the king. According to James Tierney, who leads Columbia Law School’s National State Attorneys General Program, the idea of an independent attorney general migrated to the American colonies and became a fixture of American state governments after the Revolution. In contrast to the U.S. attorney general, who is appointed by the president and can be removed at any time, most state AGs are elected, strengthening their position as true independent checks against executive power.

In 1907, the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) formed to chart a shared antitrust strategy regarding the Standard Oil Company. The group, which also tackled issues such as habeas corpus, federal-state relations, and criminal law enforcement, was staffed through state AG offices until 1936, when it was taken under the umbrella of the Council of State Governments. In 1980, NAAG split off once again as an independent association. Over the decades, its agenda has expanded to include pressing issues of each new era: internal security in the 1950s, civil rights in the 1960s, cyberspace law in the 2000s, and consumer financial protection in the 2010s.

It was in the mid-1990s, though, that state AGs really began to innovate new ways to use the powers of their office. More than 40 states came together to sue the five largest U.S. tobacco companies, charging them with consumer fraud and seeking payment for the Medicaid costs incurred for tobacco-caused illness. The bipartisan effort led to a groundbreaking settlement in 1998 and provided the template for multistate litigation ever since.

“We knew AGs were increasing [their] power back in 1995, when they started to take on the powerful tobacco industry,” says Karen White, the executive director of the Conference of Western Attorneys General, another AG association, which White has worked for since 1991. “This was the first time that AGs had front-page news headlines every day. Their powers were elevated, and people started to understand what they do, and could do. It wasn’t the first multistate case, but it was the most impactful in terms of catching people’s attention and catapulting AGs into a force to be reckoned with.”

Paul Nolette, a Marquette University political scientist who studies AGs, finds that while there were a few multistate cases in the 1980s, their numbers increased during the 1990s and 2000s and reached new heights during the Obama years. Some were bipartisan—particularly around consumer protection issues—but the later years of the last century and early years of the new one saw the birth of party-affiliated AG associations and more multistate, partisan litigation.

Republicans led the way, bolstered by the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), a group dedicated to electing Republican AGs and litigating cases based on conservative legal philosophy. RAGA launched in 1999, moving under the auspices of the Republican State Leadership Committee in 2002. But the group’s formidable legal efforts did not take off until the Obama years.

And take off they did. Launching a concerted effort to beef up its political power, RAGA began fundraising and spending money on AG campaigns at unprecedented levels. In 2014, the group split off to become its own organization, creating its own super PAC to boot. RAGA raised $16 million that year, nearly four times what it raised in 2010. Pharmaceutical companies, the fossil fuel industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Koch brothers were among the group’s largest benefactors. Promises to fight for deregulation in the courts proved to be effective fundraising appeals. In joint actions, Republican AGs challenged President Obama’s policies on immigration, health care, the environment, and the workplace—raking in even more money with each successful court action.

Increased campaign spending paid off. By 2015, Republicans commanded a majority of AG seats, and in the 2016 election, Republican attorneys general increased their numbers from 27 to 29, the most at any time in U.S. history.

Democratic AGs, after dragging their feet, began rethinking their own strategies in 2014. They had a part-time committee—the Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA)—which had been based in Denver, Colorado, since its founding in 2002. DAGA was disconnected from the rest of the party, though. And while it had always done some fundraising, budgets for AG races had been fairly small.

“RAGA could really marshal its Republican AGs, whereas DAGA just wasn’t as good,” says Travis LeBlanc, who served as special assistant attorney general of California and a senior adviser to California AG Kamala Harris. “RAGA really ran like a really well-oiled machine.”

At the end of 2015, DAGA decided to relocate to Washington, D.C., and turn itself into a full-time operation. In May 2016, the group hired its first full-time executive director, Sean Rankin, a veteran Democratic political operative. Charged with aiding and electing Democratic AGs across the country, Rankin tells me he thinks he has the coolest job in politics.

Today, DAGA has offices in both Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Rankin spent most of 2016 forging new relationships with groups like the National Education Association, Planned Parenthood, and the Democratic Governors Association, and since Election Day he has been working with tech groups, labor unions, Latino Victory, and the Congressional Black Caucus. “We needed to leverage new strategic partnerships,” says Rankin. “This component seems obvious, but for DAGA it didn’t exist before in the same way.”

Despite the decline in the number of Democratic AGs, DAGA is quick to note its successes in the 2016 election: Democrats won two out of three of their most contested AG races, even outperforming Hillary Clinton in states such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina. DAGA’s fundraising prowess still pales in comparison to RAGA’s; in the 2016 cycle, DAGA raised $10 million, compared with the more than $23 million RAGA raked in. But in February, DAGA hired its first full-time fundraiser, and has been working to raise money from progressive interest groups motivated to fight back against Donald Trump.

“Gun control, reproductive choice, environmental issues—at the end of the day, these are all being played out more in the courts than they are in Congress, and so our Democratic interest groups are coming to realize they need to support Democratic AGs more going forward,” says Steve Jewett, a political consultant who oversees campaign work for DAGA.

“RAGA certainly has the lead, but that lead is not going to last forever,” Rankin adds. “We are going to catch up.”

DAGA’s investments over the course of 2016, while made on the assumption that Clinton would win, have nevertheless enabled AGs to coordinate faster responses to the new president. But how effectively the Democratic AGs will contest Republican policies and Trump’s agenda remains to be seen.

“Republicans are different, they’ve always been more sophisticated and disciplined in the orchestrated exercise of power,” says a political consultant involved with AGs who agreed to speak on background. “With RAGA, they’re pretty harsh with one another. If you don’t participate, if you don’t play along, you won’t get support. I don’t think DAGA has been as disciplined about that.”

DEMOCRATIC AGS WILL SURELY look to the example set by their GOP colleagues as they prepare to oppose Trump’s policies. During the Obama years, Republican AGs took their cases to Texas courts, which are chock-full of conservative judges who are amenable to their arguments. The GOP did not originate “forum shopping”—Democratic AGs won injunctions against George W. Bush’s policies from district court judges in California’s more liberal Ninth Circuit—but the Republicans did increase the practice. Greg Abbott, Republican governor of Texas, says that on a typical day when he was Texas’s AG, he went into the office, sued the federal government, and went home. Abbott sued the Obama administration 31 times, and his successor, Ken Paxton, brought 17 additional legal challenges.

For nearly a century after Massachusetts v. Mellon, a 1923 Supreme Court case, states were treated like any other litigant. They were not allowed to bring lawsuits unless they had “standing” to sue—that is, they could not challenge federal policies they believed were generally bad unless they could show a concrete and specific injury caused by the challenged conduct that could be remedied by a court. A harm affecting everyone was not a sufficient legal basis.

“Otherwise you’d get every state marching into court the second that you do something they don’t like,” says Stephen Vladeck, a University of Texas Law School professor. “You’d turn what are really political disputes into court challenges at the outset. Find me a federal policy that all 50 states endorse.”

Under George W. Bush, however, Massachusetts’s AG, joined by 11 other Democratic AGs, sued the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases. In a surprising 5–4 decision in 2007, the Supreme Court gave Massachusetts “special solicitude” in the standing analysis, making it easier for states to get into court than it is for individuals and private organizations. The ruling effectively expanded states’ authority to bring lawsuits against the federal government.

Under Obama, Republican AGs pushed open this door even further. In 2014, Obama announced new policies to give undocumented parents and lawful permanent residents permission to live and work for three years without fear of deportation. Twenty-six Republican AGs sued the federal government in response, arguing that the president violated procedural norms and exceeded his constitutional authority.

Abbott argued that Texas had standing to challenge Obama’s immigration program because his state would suffer a financial burden in providing undocumented immigrants with state-subsidized driver’s licenses. A Texas district judge, Andrew Hanen, agreed that this burden constituted sufficient “harm” to bring the case and issued a national injunction to block the order. (Hanen, it should be noted, was no fan of Obama: He had previously been on record saying that the administration worked with drug cartels to smuggle children illegally over the Mexican border.) In a 2–1 decision, an appellate panel on the Fifth Circuit upheld Hanen’s injunction.

Last year saw even more preliminary national injunctions against Obama’s policies, all issued by federal district court judges in Texas. Republican AGs were able to block several Department of Labor regulations, a letter from the Department of Education advising schools about policies regarding transgender students and public-school bathrooms, and a rule interpreting an anti-discrimination clause in the Affordable Care Act.

Some scholars, such as Samuel Bray, a professor at UCLA School of Law, have been speaking out against the trend of issuing national injunctions—a legal innovation that didn’t become commonplace until the latter half of the 20th century. The idea that a single district judge could issue an injunction to block federal policy nationwide, as opposed to just restraining the defendant’s conduct vis-à-vis the plaintiff, was, Bray says, unthinkable for most of U.S. history.

But what goes around comes around, and Democratic AGs intend to use the new legal strategies forged by their Republican colleagues to challenge President Trump.

“Republican AGs engaged in continuous warfare,” says Maryland’s attorney general, Brian Frosh. “Scott Pruitt [the former Oklahoma Republican AG and new EPA head] created a federalism unit in his office and went out and sued the Obama administration repeatedly. Maybe that’s what this evolves into for us. I really hope it doesn’t, but we will engage when necessary.”

Democrats, in short, have no interest in unilaterally disarming.

WHEN A STATE FILES A LAWSUIT, it invokes a special sort of gravitas that private entities don’t have. And when ten, or fifteen, or twenty states join together to sue a corporation or the federal government, it sends a powerful message—something AGs rarely overlook.

“Every case is about the law, and the politics,” says Amanda Frost, a professor at the Washington College of Law at American University. “If you read the complaints AGs file, they are very often written with reporters in mind, with the politics in mind.”

Not coincidentally, Democratic AGs hailing from solidly blue states such as California, New York, Washington, and Massachusetts have shown themselves particularly willing to position themselves on the front lines of the political resistance against Trump.

Schneiderman, New York’s AG, brings with him personal experience battling Donald Trump in court. In the summer of 2013, two years before Trump announced his candidacy, Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against him, alleging that Trump University, which ran a real-estate training program from 2005 until 2011, ripped off thousands of people all over the country.

In response, Trump created a website to attack Schneiderman, sued him for $100 million, and filed ethics claims against him—all of which went nowhere. The Trump University case appeared to settle this past November, with Trump agreeing to pay $25 million. (One of the former students has recently pulled out of the settlement, raising questions as to whether the case is indeed resolved.) “From our perspective, [Trump’s] response to our suit was really a preview of the scorched-earth tactics he’d go on to use during the presidential election,” Schneiderman says. “Look, Trump has had a successful career involving charming people or bullying people, and at this point in his life, we shouldn’t expect anything different from him.”

Legal problems with Trump’s taxes or businesses could be a state as well as a federal issue, and if any state AG investigates those issues it would be Schneiderman, since the Trump Organization is headquartered in New York. Some progressives have been calling on him to launch such investigations, but none are yet under way, and they could be difficult for a state AG to pursue. (Investigating Trump might have been easier for Preet Bharara, the fired U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.) But at a conference of the National Association of Attorneys General in early March, Schneiderman said “it is not sustainable” for Trump to refuse to disclose his holdings or to divest them. He added that his office is currently studying Trump’s potential conflicts of interest, but that “it would be premature to say” how his team will proceed.

Following the election, Massachusetts Democratic AG Healey organized town halls to gauge citizens’ reactions to Trump around her state. Hundreds turned out—far more, she says, than she ever anticipated. “I’m hearing from Democrats, Republicans, and independents. They’re really upset. I’ve never seen anything like this,” Healey says. “We need to stand up on the front lines to play defense, but also to play offense and continue to pass laws that help people, the economy, the environment, and consumers, in the face of a president and an administration that may abdicate any and all responsibilities.”

AFTER DISAPPOINTING RESULTS in the 2016 federal elections, Democratic party leaders—including Tom Perez, the new chair of the Democratic National Committee—say they recognize the need to shift political focus back to the states.

“Republicans have taken so many states, dominating governor’s mansions, legislatures, and even state AGs,” says Healey. “That’s because the Republican Party made a concerted effort to focus on the school committee on up. We have got to do a better job of telling everyday people why Democratic policies translate to prosperity.”

Democrats may find that refocusing on states produces more than short-term political gains. For years, the GOP has positioned itself as the party of federalism. But there is also a progressive version of federalism, historically associated with Louis Brandeis, the early 20th-century reformer and Supreme Court justice, who envisioned states as “laboratories of democracy.” Democratic AGs seeking to act as checks on the Trump administration might find themselves reinvigorating this ideal.

Take, for example, Trump’s threat to cut off billions of dollars to states and cities that refuse to help with deportations. Democrats may find themselves grateful for certain Supreme Court decisions that they otherwise oppose. In its 5–4 ruling on the Affordable Care Act in 2012, the Supreme Court struck down the provision of the law that effectively forced the states to expand Medicaid. The Court held that by making all federal Medicaid funds conditional on the expansion, Congress would be unconstitutionally commandeering state governments. In the age of Trump, Democrats may now find that decision a helpful precedent in protecting states from having their state and city police forces commandeered for immigration enforcement, on penalty of losing federal funds they would otherwise have the right to receive.

“Trump’s never been in government, his people have never been in government, they’re not lawyers, and they don’t seem to have a sense of the Constitution at all,” says Columbia Law School’s James Tierney. “They’re going to learn that we’ve got judges; we’ve got good, strong, judges. And a lot of those suits will be brought by attorneys general.”

Lawyers will be watching the Trump administration like hawks, looking for any slight procedural violation. Not only can state AGs sue for things Trump affirmatively does; they can also sue for inaction if they feel the president fails to fulfill his duties under the law.

“It’s actually much less complicated than reporters think it is,” Tierney says. “If someone does not enforce the law, then someone has to do something about it. We haven’t even begun to see what cases will be dropped, what unfair settlements will be struck—but people are watching very closely. And if [Trump] operates in a way that impacts the sovereignty or the proprietary interests of the citizens of the state, AGs will sue.”

TIERNEY ADMITS AGS ARE more partisan than they were a few years ago but says they’re still less partisan than Congress or the American public. AG partisanship may be set to escalate, however, in dramatic new ways.

In November 2015, Schneiderman launched a probe into ExxonMobil in response to news investigations that suggested Exxon knew since the 1970s that its products were heating up the atmosphere, yet intentionally misled investors and the public about it. Schneiderman requested internal Exxon documents spanning the past 40 years. Schneiderman said he had suspicions that, as in the tobacco cases of the 1990s, corporate executives in the oil industry may have had hidden knowledge that their products had harmful consequences. California AG Kamala Harris opened an investigation in January 2016, and Maura Healey of Massachusetts joined Schneiderman’s probe two months later.

In May 2016, 13 Republican members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology sent a letter demanding that Democratic AGs and environmental groups turn over their own documents to show whether their Exxon investigations were politically motivated. A month later, ExxonMobil filed a federal lawsuit in Texas against Healey, claiming her AG probe was politically motivated and violated Exxon’s corporate right to free speech. Lamar Smith, the House Science Committee chairman from Texas, followed up in July by issuing subpoenas to Healey, Schneiderman, and eight environmental organizations.

“The attorneys general are pursuing a political agenda at the expense of scientists’ right to free speech,” Smith said at the time. (ExxonMobil is headquartered in Texas.)

Both Democratic AGs responded that Congress lacked the authority to intervene in their state-level investigations, and refused to comply. In mid-February, Lamar Smith issued new subpoenas.

Paul Nolette says he’s never seen this kind of congressional interference before and that for the most part, corporate investigations, such as when state AGs probe pharmaceutical companies, have been considered nonpartisan. “That may be changing,” he says. “I suspect this won’t be a one-off thing.”

“You now have a Republican-controlled Congress wasting taxpayer money harassing state AGs, sending multiple subpoenas, which it has no authority to issue,” Healey tells me. “We have the authority to do this investigation, and it’s critically important that it’s not hamstrung by political machinations exercised by the House committee. Let’s be very clear about what this is. It’s an abuse of federal power, and an example of a committee that isn’t interested in facts or science looking to carry the water for corporate interests.”

AGS ARE MOSTLY ELECTED, so a legal strategy for resisting Trump will require not just victories in the courtroom but in the polling booth as well. DAGA has already been eyeing the 2018 electoral landscape, recruiting candidates, and raising money.

ACLU donations skyrocketed in the wake of Trump’s immigration executive order, but no similar wave of cash poured into DAGA’s coffers. Rankin is optimistic that such fundraising will be coming; in addition to its new fundraiser, DAGA has been talking to progressive groups and other organizations that want to help Democratic AGs raise money. Rankin says the organization received its first million-dollar donation in mid-February. “That’s never happened before,” he says.

In many states, attorneys general are the best-situated leaders to run for higher office as a result of their experience, statewide reputation, and legal victories they may have won.

“Our AGs are out there saying, ‘Listen, I’m here to fight for you, I’m going to defend you against big interest groups that are against you or do you harm,’” says Jewett, DAGA’s election consultant. “We look at our Republican counterparts and they’ve essentially been sending a message of, ‘We’re going to fight regulation, fight Obama.’ I think that’s not a long-term winning strategy and Republicans are going to struggle to find a message to stay relevant.”

Right now, faced with a president whom most progressives consider unfit and dangerous, relevance is not a problem for Democratic AGs. No other progressive force in the country is as well positioned to investigate the Trump administration and to take it to court.

Baltimore Is Finally Doing Something About Its Notorious Police Force

Originally published in VICE on January 12, 2016.
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The city of Baltimore and the federal government unveiled the terms of a sweeping 227 page consent decree Thursday morning, a legal document mandating reforms to the local police force. The deal emerged 21 months after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in police custody in April 2015, and five months after a scathing Department of Justice report alleged a litany of unconstitutional, racist, and just plain mean-spirited policing practices in Charm City.

“Through this agreement, we are moving forward together to heal the tension in the relationship between BPD and the community it serves,” US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a press conference in the city. “The agreement is robust and comprehensive,” she added, emphasizing that it was negotiated to ensure effective policing, restore the community’s trust in law enforcement, and advance the public and police officers’ safety.

Like 14 similar deals currently being enforced on law enforcement jurisdictions across America, the Baltimore consent decree lays out a number of new rules and systemic changes. Among other things, it calls for a community oversight task force to recommend tweaks to the current civilian oversight systems, insists on respect for individuals’ First Amendment rights to protest and monitor the police, imposes guidelines on proper use of force and transport of people in custody, protocols on constitutional stops, searches, and arrests, requirements for annual “community policing” trainings for all officers, and new procedures for conducting sexual assault investigations. While the BPD has moved to implement some of these reforms already—which the decree acknowledges and commends—Baltimore now has a legal tool to help cure what critics believe is a broken culture of often-brutal policing.

The deal also represents one of the last chances for the Obama administration’s activist Justice Department to leave its fingerprint on the American criminal justice system—and to rein in rogue cops at the center of Black Lives Matter protests. The only question is how aggressively a new, “law and order” happy White House under Donald Trump will enforce it.

The Baltimore City Fraternal Order of the Police, the local police union, quickly issued a critical statement after news of the decree broke Thursday, bemoaning the fact that they were not included in the negotiations. “Despite continued assurance by representatives of the Department of Justice that our organization would be included in the Consent Decree negotiations, no request to participate was ever forthcoming and we were not involved in the process,” the statement said. “As we were not afforded an advance copy of the agreement, neither our rank and file members who will be the most affected, nor our attorneys, have had a chance to read the final product and, as such, we will not have a comment now. Be assured, however, that a response will be forthcoming at the appropriate time.”

Police unions in other cities have worked to block reform efforts through their collective bargaining agreements, and Baltimore activists say they are bracing for similar resistance from the local FOP. The Baltimore police union has opposed reforms to the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, which governs how officers accused of misconduct are treated in Maryland. Some activists say the statewide law stands as the city’s biggest barrier for meaningful police accountability and transparency.

In October, for its part, the Baltimore FOP issued its own recommendations for inclusion in the consent decree, calling for things like increased whistleblower protections, more cops, and technology upgrades.

During his confirmation hearings for US Attorney General this week, Alabama US Senator Jeff Sessions expressed skepticism about using consent decrees to force change in police departments. “These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness,” he said. Sessions also once wrote that court-ordered consent decrees were “undemocratic” and “dangerous,” which taken with his more recent comments has served to send a chill down the spine of police reformers nationwide.

Still, Outgoing Attorney General Lynch assured the public at Thursday’s press conference that the consent decree “will live on past this administration.” After all, it is court-enforceable and there will be an independent monitor overseeing the agreement.

But Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor of public health at Morgan State University, told VICE he has “no faith in Trump’s folks, especially if it’s Beauregard Sessions” and that he expects the police union to oppose key elements of the agreement. “Other means will have to be utilized to ensure this is enforced,” he said, pointing to ongoing efforts to change or repeal the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights.

Meanwhile, DeRay McKesson, a Black Lives Matter national activist and administrator in the Baltimore City Public School system, praised the agreement on Twitter for its scope, and noted that it’s the first consent decree he’s ever seen to include school police.

 

Skepticism that the new administration will hold local cops’ feet to the fire abounds, however. One member of Baltimore Bloc, a grassroots group focused on police reform, told VICE that she and her fellow activists have no confidence in a Trump DOJ to enforce the consent decree, even if they had their doubts about enforcement under a Hillary Clinton DOJ, too. “I think Baltimore Police is going to resist it all the way, FOP’s statement is already obstructionist as hell, and it was the police gleefully violating people’s rights that got us here,” the activist said.

The city has been under pressure to finish the consent decree before Inauguration Day. That’s because once the agreement is finalized—it still needs court approval—a federal judge will be empowered to enforce it, no matter who is president or US attorney general. Still, legal experts generally agree that if the police department or city political leadership fail to follow through on the terms of the agreement, it will be up to Trump’s Department of Justice to take them to court to compel change

Public Education under Trump

Originally published in The American Prospect winter 2017 issue.
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On November 8, 2016, the man who vowed to be “the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice” won the presidential contest. About two weeks later he announced that Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor who has aggressively lobbied for private-school vouchers, online education, and for-profit charter schools, would serve as his education secretary. In early December, Jeb Bush told an audience of more than 1,000 education reformers in Washington, D.C., that he hoped “there’s an earthquake” in the next few years with respect to education funding and policy. “Be big, be bold, or go home,” he urged the crowd.

To say education conservatives are ecstatic about their new political opportunities would be an understatement. With Republicans controlling the House and Senate, a politically savvy conservative ideologue leading the federal education department, a vice president who earned notoriety in his home state for expanding vouchers, charters, and battling teacher unions, not to mention a president-elect who initially asked creationist Jerry Falwell Jr. to head up his Department of Education, the stars have aligned for market-driven education advocates.

Donald Trump neither prioritized education on the campaign trail, nor unveiled detailed policy proposals, but the ideas he did put forth, in addition to his selection of Betsy DeVos, make clear where public education may be headed on his watch. And with a GOP Congress freed from a Democratic presidential veto, conservative lawmakers have already begun eyeing new legislation that just a few months ago seemed like political pipedreams.

Many aspects of education policy are handled at the state and local level, of course, but Republicans will govern in 33 states, and Trump will have substantial latitude to influence their agenda. The next few years may well bring about radical change to education.

School Choice

“President-elect Trump is going to be the best thing that ever happened for school choice and the charter school movement,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has proclaimed. “Donald is going to create incentives that promote and open more charter schools. It’s a priority.”

Giuliani’s comments reflect the enthusiasm that Trump expressed about choice and charters while campaigning for president. During a March primary debate, Trump said charters were “terrific” and affirmed they “work and they work very well.” A few months later he traveled to a low-performing for-profit charter school in Cleveland to say he’d invest $20 billion in federal money to expand charters and private-school vouchers as president. His campaign has not outlined where the money would come from, but suggests it will be accomplished by “reprioritizing existing federal dollars.”

Trump’s ambitions will likely be aided by his vice president-elect, Mike Pence, who worked vigorously to expand charter schools and vouchers while serving as Indiana’s governor. Pence loosened the eligibility requirements for students to obtain vouchers, and eliminated the cap on voucher recipients. Today, more than 30,000 Indiana students—including middle-class students—attend private and parochial schools with public funds, making it the largest single voucher program in the country. Pence also helped double the number of charter schools in his state; he increased their funding and gave charter operators access to low-interest state loans for facilities.

In the House and Senate, Republicans are eager to expand Washington, D.C.’s private-school voucher program, which has paid for about 6,500 students to attend mostly religious schools since the program launched in 2004. “I think [the Republican Congress and new administration] could eventually turn D.C. into an all-choice district like we see in New Orleans,” says Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation.

Congress also allocates $333 million per year to the federal charter school program, and groups like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools are calling for that number to rise to $1 billion annually. Martin West, an education policy professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, noted that to the extent the federal charter school program is well funded, states will continue to feel pressure to position themselves competitively for those dollars.

Conservative leaders at the state level are also looking to expand private-school vouchers and so-called education savings accounts, which are voucher-esque subsidies that can go toward expenses like tutoring and homeschooling, in addition to private-school tuition. At the Washington conference where Jeb Bush keynoted, panelists spoke enthusiastically about setting up vouchers or education savings accounts in all 50 states. On the campaign trail, Trump called for expanding private-school vouchers for low-income students, but his vice president-elect and his nominee for education secretary both support giving vouchers to middle-class families, too.

Congressional Republicans may also try to establish federal tax-savings accounts for K–12, which are similar to the 529 plans that already exist for higher education, and which mainly benefit well-off families. They also may push for federal tax credit scholarships, which would provide tax relief to individuals and businesses that help low-income children pay for private school.

In a sense, the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations softened the ground for a federally incentivized expansion of vouchers and other forms of privatization. In the bipartisan deal that led to the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002, Bush and Democrats led by Senator Edward Kennedy traded federal standards for more federal funding. The subtext was the Republican narrative that public schools were failing. This in turn led to the era of standardized testing and punitive measures against “failing” schools. Later, by appointing former Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Arne Duncan to lead the Education Department, and passing over such progressive reformers as Linda Darling-Hammond, Obama sided with those who sought measures like the nationalization of academic standards. The new backlash from conservatives against testing and the Common Core should not be interpreted as a rejection of a federal role. The right loves it when Washington intervenes—if it serves the right’s purposes.

The Department of Education

Trump has boasted that he would reduce the size of the federal government, and his DeVos-led Department of Education is one likely place he’ll start. Though threatening to dismantle that federal agency is a long-standing Republican tradition, surrogates say it is more likely that Trump will try and “starve” the department, and downsize its responsibilities, rather than kill it outright.

In October, Carl P. Paladino, a New York real-estate developer who was briefly considered for education secretary, took to the stage on Trump’s behalf at a national urban education conference and said the department’s Office for Civil Rights—which oversees initiatives like tackling college sexual assault and reforming school discipline—was spewing “absolute nonsense.”

Obama’s Education Department has given unprecedented attention to reducing racial disparities in school discipline, issuing the first set of national guidelines in 2014 and making clear that it would hold districts accountable for discriminatory practices. Policy experts think these efforts will fall quickly by the wayside in the coming years.

In a press conference following Trump’s victory, David Cleary, the chief of staff for Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said his boss believes the Office for Civil Rights should be reined in. “There will be aggressive oversight from Congress to make sure it shrinks back to its statutory authority and responsibilities,” Cleary said.

Another major threat to the Education Department is a significant loss of institutional knowledge. Politico reported that the agency is already experiencing a loss of morale since the election, and bracing for a serious brain drain: Many veteran employees who have served for decades, in addition to younger staff who entered government under Obama, are considering leaving because they don’t want to work for a President Trump.

Common Core

One crowd-pleasing element of candidate Trump’s stump speech was his promise to “kill” Common Core—the standards launched in 2009 that lay out what all K–12 students are expected to learn in English and math. The standards, which were created by a coalition of state governors, and incentivized by the Obama administration through the federal Race to the Top program, have been a flashpoint for conservatives, who see them as a threat to “local control.” Trump vowed to eliminate Common Core through the so-called School Choice and Education Opportunity Act—part of the legislative agenda he says he’ll focus on during his first 100 days. DeVos now stresses that she does not support Common Core, although an organization she founded—the Great Lakes Education Project, which she also funded and served as a board member for—strongly backed the standards in 2013.

While there are limits to what Trump and DeVos could do to end the Common Core standards (they are state standards, after all), Trump’s executive bully pulpit could certainly help embolden Common Core opponents on the local level.

Still, Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress, is not so worried about the future of the national education standards. “I don’t even think Donald Trump knows what the Common Core is,” she says. And despite candidate Trump’s demagoguery, Brown points out that states haven’t really abandoned them, even in more conservative parts of the country. “To the extent that states have changed their standards, they basically renamed them and kept the basic content,” she says.

Teachers Unions

This past year, public-sector unions faced an existential threat from Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a Supreme Court case seeking to overturn a 40-year-old ruling that required public employees represented by a union to pay fees to cover the union’s bargaining and representation costs, even if they do not pay full membership dues. Five of the nine justices were clearly primed to rule against the so-called “agency fees” and upend decades of legal precedent, but Justice Antonin Scalia unexpectedly died in February, before the Court could rule. The case ended up in a 4–4 tie, leaving the law, and collective bargaining, in place.

Now that the Republican Senate has refused to hold a vote on Obama’s appointment of Judge Merrick Garland, Trump will nominate a conservative Scalia successor to the Court. With a number of Friedrichs look-alike cases headed to the Supreme Court, it’s a near certainty that a reconstituted majority of five conservative justices will strike down agency fees, which could considerably reduce the resources available to the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—two of the nation’s largest unions. Were that not trouble enough, the massive support that the AFT and NEA gave to Hillary Clinton’s campaign is not likely to endear them to a president with a well-known penchant for revenge.

Every Student Succeeds Act

At the end of 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the successor to the controversial Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, which tied federal funding to school performance. The new law is set to take full effect during the 2017–2018 school year. While there was broad recognition that ESSA marked a positive step forward from the test-and-punish regime that had reigned for 13 years under No Child Left Behind, a diverse coalition of civil-rights groups has worried that its replacement, which substantially reduced the federal government’s role in public education, will not do enough to hold states accountable for the success of racial minorities, students with disabilities, and English language–learners. “The hard-learned lesson of the civil rights community over decades has shown that a strong federal role is crucial to protecting the interests of educationally underserved students,” wrote the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a letter to Capitol Hill during the ESSA negotiations.

For the past year, the Obama administration worked to draft regulations that would help maintain some level of federal accountability for student learning and funding equity, particularly for disadvantaged students. These executive-level regulations, which have been controversial among congressional Republicans, are likely to be abandoned, or weakened, under President Trump.

One policy that congressional Republicans might push for under a President Trump is known as “Title I portability,” which would allow states to use federal dollars earmarked for low-income students to follow students to the public or private school of their choice. While still a candidate, Trump brought in Rob Goad, a senior adviser to Representative Luke Messer, an Indiana Republican, to help him flesh out some school-choice ideas. Messer co-sponsored a bill during the ESSA negotiations that would have launched Title I portability, but Obama threatened to veto any version of the law that contained it. A White House report issued in 2015 said that Title I portability would direct significant amounts of federal aid away from high-poverty districts toward low-poverty ones, impacting such districts as Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia particularly hard. Conservatives may see a more politically viable route to push this policy under Trump.

Brown of the Center for American Progress doesn’t think Congress will likely pursue Title I portability, however, in part because it has a lot of other legislative priorities to attend to. “The ink is barely dry on ESSA; states haven’t yet submitted their plans. I think [portability] is probably dead on arrival, but maybe six years from now,” she says. Even then, Brown thinks the policy will never be all that popular, since huge swaths of the country lack many school options, making them poor candidates for private-school vouchers.

But other education experts say that the lack of brick-and-mortar schools in rural communities just means that the door could open more widely for for-profit virtual schools, which DeVos has strongly supported. In 2006, Richard DeVos, her husband, disclosed that he was an investor in K12 Inc., a national for-profit virtual charter school company that has since gone public. As of mid-December, Betsy DeVos had not clarified whether her family still holds a financial stake in the for-profit education sector.

Higher Education

Trump, who founded the now defunct for-profit college Trump University, recently agreed to pay $25 million to settle a series of lawsuits alleging fraud. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociologist at Temple University who studies college affordability, predicts America will be “open for business” under President Trump when it comes to promoting for-profit colleges. “This means cutting regulation and oversight, and defunding public higher education so that students view for-profits as a good deal,” she wrote on her blog following the election. The Higher Education Act, which governs the administration of federal student aid programs, is also up for reauthorization in 2017.

Trump didn’t devote much time while campaigning to talking about colleges and universities, but he did say in an October speech that he’d look to address college affordability by supporting income-based repayment plans, going against many Republicans who say such initiatives are fiscally reckless and create incentives to acquire too much higher education. Conservatives have also proposed rolling back Obama administration reforms that federalized all new student loans and applied stricter regulations, particularly to for-profit institutions. If President Trump does ultimately re-privatize student loans, consumer protections would likely disappear, and the cost of borrowing would rise.

University leaders are also worrying about what a Trump administration could mean for research funding. The government is likely to cut back on investments on budgetary grounds, but also on ideological grounds, since universities tend to be seen as liberal enclaves. Experts say that non-ideological scientific research is particularly vulnerable. House Republicans, led by Representative Lamar Smith, who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, have tried before to cut federal funding for social sciences and climate and energy research, and having a president who refers to global warming as a hoax “created by and for the Chinese” doesn’t augur well for federal research investments.

Moreover, as the president-elect frequently rails about political correctness, higher education leaders worry that a Trump administration will not look kindly on student free speech and protest. Ben Carson, who was briefly considered for Trump’s education secretary, said that if he were in control he would repurpose the department to monitor colleges and universities for “extreme bias” and deny federal funding to those judged to have it. Decrying alleged campus bias is a staple of “alt-right” (read: white nationalist) media outlets like Breitbart, whose chief, Steve Bannon, will be Trump’s strategic adviser and senior counselor.

The Path Forward for Progressives

For a week following the election, it wasn’t clear how exactly the liberal groups that backed Obama’s education reform agenda—Common Core standards, test-based accountability, and charter schools—would respond to their new choice-friendly president. The fact that the school reform agenda has long had bipartisan backing has always been one of its strongest political assets.

As pundits tried to guess whom Trump would pick for various cabinet-level positions, rumors started to float that Trump might be eyeing Michelle Rhee, the controversial former D.C. Public Schools chancellor, or Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City, for education secretary. Both women back the Common Core standards, and are broadly revered among Democratic school reformers.

But on November 17, just over a week after the election, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, Shavar Jeffries, issued a strongly worded statement urging Democrats to refuse to accept an appointment to be Trump’s secretary of education. “In so doing, that individual would become an agent for an agenda that both contradicts progressive values and threatens grave harm to our nation’s most vulnerable kids,” Jeffries said. He condemned Trump for his plans to eliminate accountability standards, to cut Title I funding, to reduce support for social services, and for giving “tacit and express endorsement” to racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes, and he called on the president-elect to disavow his past statements.

Shortly thereafter, Moskowitz announced that she would “not be entertaining any prospective opportunities” in the administration, but defended the president-elect, saying there are “many positive signs” that President Trump will be different than candidate Trump. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, took a tour of a Success Academy charter in Harlem later that week. Rhee, following a meeting with Trump a few days later, issued a statement saying she would not pursue a job in Trump’s administration but that “[w]ishing for his failure” would amount to “wanting the failure of our millions of American children who desperately need a better education.”

The equivocating didn’t end there. Democrats for Education Reform soon walked back their original declaration of opposition to Trump. In a statement sent to the group’s supporters, Jeffries wrote that DFER was not saying Democrats should not work with Trump on education, but just that no Democrat should work for him as secretary of education. “[W]e draw a distinction between working with and working for Trump,” Jeffries wrote. “Where appropriate, we will work with the Administration to pursue policies that expand opportunity for kids, and we will vocally oppose rhetoric or policies that undermine those opportunities.”

In a political climate where teachers-union strength may dramatically diminish, opposition to Trump’s agenda from liberals who supported Obama’s education reforms could be an important deterrent to Trump’s rightward march on education. But with DFER already signaling that it’s open to working with Trump, with high-profile reformers like Moskowitz and Rhee also giving him a public nod of approval, and since some of the same billionaires who fund the charter school movement also back the president-elect, the chances aren’t great that Democratic education reformers will staunchly oppose Trump’s school reform agenda.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is under no illusions about the enormous challenges that loom for the future of public education. Yet she notes that over the past half-decade, educators and their unions have worked with their communities like never before. “If Donald Trump opts for privatization, destabilization, and austerity over supporting public education and the will of the people,” she says, “well, there will be a huge fight.”

Q&A: The Abortion Battle’s Next Phase

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 12, 2016.
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In a landmark ruling last month, the Supreme Court struck down a package of Texas abortion restrictions known as Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws. Such laws, which have proliferated around the country, typically restrict abortion access by imposing rigid and expensive hospital-style mandates on clinics. The Court’s ruling in the case, known as Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, found that the restrictive Texas TRAP laws were unconstitutional because they placed an “undue burden” on women, and marked a major victory for the reproductive rights movement. The American Prospect’s Rachel Cohen spoke with Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, which helped lead the challenge to the Texas TRAP laws, to ask about the ruling’s implications for abortion access and for the upcoming election. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Rachel Cohen: Now that the Supreme Court has struck down TRAP laws, what’s next on the agenda for anti-choice opponents?

Ilyse Hogue: Over the years, [abortion opponents] have realized that honesty can only get them so far in terms of achieving their goal of ending legal abortion. TRAP laws were really a way to deceive the public, cloaking their efforts around the idea of protecting women’s health. The Supreme Court just eviscerated the anti-choice posturing that TRAP laws are in any way about women’s health.

So one of their favorite tools just got taken away from them. They are reeling, but they are not the type to take their ball and go home. We’re anticipating them pushing forward on a number of different fronts. I think they will step up their harassment at clinics—harassing patients and doctors. And we’ve seen some really insidious things from state legislatures, like recently an effort in Missouri to force clinics to turn over their private medical records to the state. I think we’re going to see anti-choice opponents continue to pour resources into crisis pregnancy centers, which are just another way to deceive women.

How will the reproductive rights movement respond?

We are pushing back on their crisis pregnancy center efforts. In California last year, legislators passed the Reproductive FACT Act, which sets a national model for requiring all crisis pregnancy centers to be really clear with their patients about what they do and don’t do. Other states are looking at California’s law, and I think it’s very much at the top of legislators’ minds for the beginning of 2017.

We’ve also seen states where pro-choice legislators are filing to appeal TRAP laws that are already on the books, like Daylin Leach, a Democratic state senator, in Pennsylvania. And we’re working as a movement to step up litigation and public education to repeal the rest of those laws around the country. Importantly, we’re really moving to a position where we will not just fight anti-choice lies and deception, but where we can actively push for legislation that expands access to abortion. For example, a number of states are looking at medical abortion, and allowing nurse practitioners to provide abortion services. California already has that and other states are looking at it.

On top of this, we’ve got two pieces of federal legislation that are picking up momentum. The Women’s Health Protection Act, which would enforce and protect the right of a woman to decide for herself whether to continue or end a pregnancy, and the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Woman Act, which would repeal the Hyde Amendment and ensure that abortion services could be covered under federal health insurance.

NARAL recently released a statement calling the Democratic Party platform “the strongest platform for reproductive freedom we have ever seen.” What’s so significant about it?

The platform is a symbolic statement of values, as well as a navigation tool for what kinds of legislative and public policy remedies there are for the issues that we face. So the fact that it explicitly calls for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, as well as the Helms Amendment, [which restricts U.S. foreign aid from paying for abortion services] is huge. It acknowledges that there have been discriminatory practices both here and abroad against women who want to control our own reproductive destiny.

The reproductive justice movement deserves an enormous amount of credit for getting us here. Reproductive freedom in the 21st century is acknowledging that we are whole beings. There is not one group of women who gets abortions, and others who go on to be parents. We are just the same women at different times in our lives, making the decisions that are best for us and our families. That the platform takes a step towards acknowledging that is a real testament to the economic and reproductive movements that have come together.

How long will it take Texas and the other states with TRAP-style restrictions to restore abortion access to women?

I’m really glad you asked that question. The answer is too long and it varies state by state. Texas is five times the size of other states, so it will take longer there. But what’s important in answering that question is acknowledging that in the minds of the extreme anti-choice minority, this was a scorched-earth strategy. They always knew they could lose at the Supreme Court, but the amount of damage they were able to do in the meantime, in terms of clinics on the ground, in terms of women who could not access services—that’s significant damage that can never be fully undone.

While it’s important to win, we can’t actually let them gain such ground in the future. We can’t just depend on Supreme Court strategies when it comes to ensuring women access to our basic rights.

That brings us to the election. What role do you expect abortion and reproductive health to play in state and federal races?

We have to be very focused, not only on getting our champion into the White House, but on the down-ballot races, because the harm is coming disproportionately from state legislatures.

We’ve been doing a lot to hold incumbents accountable for the unbelievable amount of times they’ve tried to restrict access to abortion. Their constituents did not elect them to do that, especially at the expense of all the important business that has not gotten done. In both the federal election and for local and state races, we’re making sure voters have the information to hold their officials accountable.

This is a long-term project. We’ve got to make gains in 2016, and come 2020 and 2022, I think we’re going to start seeing some of these state legislatures really shifting on these issues.

In the 2012 election, Todd Akin, a Republican candidate from Missouri lost his race, in large part because of his outrageous comments about “legitimate rape.” Are we seeing similar types of remarks from Republicans this year?

I think people have been trained to be more careful, because when they speak their truth they find themselves at odds with the majority of their constituents. These anti-choice candidates don’t want to talk about their position once they get to a general election because they know they’re on the wrong side, and they don’t win elections if they do. We saw that so clearly in 2014 when Scott Walker, three weeks before his Wisconsin election, ran an ad saying he supports legislation to provide women with more information and to leave the final decision to a woman and her doctor. This is coming from a man who had done more to legislate abortion out of existence than every previous governor before him.

But I think what’s changed between 2012 and 2016 is that back then, the pro-choice movement was able to leverage those off-the-cuff Republican statements. But we’re not going to wait for them now. We’re going straight to the voters to remind them about their officials’ records. We did that really recently in New Hampshire with an  ad campaign targeting Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, reminding her constituents about all the anti-choice work she spent her time working on, when they didn’t want her to.

What about Donald Trump? He went so far as to say that women should be punished for getting abortions, but then quickly walked it back.

Donald Trump is not playing by the anti-choice or the GOP rulebook in any way, and we know that. One thing that’s super important to me from where I sit at NARAL, but also as an American, and as a mom, is just the way he’s giving voice and credibility to deeply-held misogynistic ideas. I think he will do tremendous damage whether he wins or not, because he has given permission to this very dark underbelly that does not represent what we need to be or what we can be. This is especially true when it comes to his misogyny, and his willingness to dehumanize women. I think particularly because he is facing a woman opponent we’re going to see a new wave of misogynistic activists who feel like they have the high ground.

How has Obama been on reproductive rights? NARAL endorsed Hillary Clinton in January. Might Hillary be different from him?

Obama has been a great backstop against the endless assault by the anti-choice majority in Congress. He has vetoed every bill we’ve needed him to veto in no uncertain terms. But what we need now is a leader in the White House who centralizes these ideas about reproductive freedom as human rights, integral to the health and security of women and families in America. That’s not really been the center of his presidency, and I think it will be the center of Hillary Clinton’s.