Check out the on-demand CLE program entitled People of Color as Attorneys General. In this powerful and inspirational program, Aaron Ford, Gurbir Grewal, Keith Ellison, and Kwame Raoul discuss their career paths as people of color, how they are addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the policies they have enacted or want to enact to counteract systemic racism, and the challenges faced and efforts made to restore the public’s confidence in our legal system.
In a year marked with chaos and disorder, 2020 was also a year we will remember for its renewed call for social justice and social change in the United States. During the summer of 2020, social justice protests broke out in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Louisville, Kentucky, and other cities in the United States as part of a national call for equality and a call to combat police brutality.
While protests are one of the oldest and most useful ways to bring about social change in our communities, protests are not the only way. For instance, more people of color serve as attorneys general, or their state’s or territory’s top legal officer, than ever before.
Who Are They?
In January 2019, four people of color were sworn in as attorney general for their respective jurisdictions: Keith Ellison (Minnesota), Kwame Raoul (Illinois), Aaron Ford (Nevada), and Letitia James (New York). As people of color, these attorneys general have had to overcome unique challenges to reach their positions, whether it’s being the child of immigrants and first-generation law students or having to endure racial slurs on their way to being their state or territory’s top attorney.
Attorneys general are in a unique position to affect change in their jurisdictions by acting as public advocates for causes on behalf of their constituents and citizens of their respective states.
What Do They Do?
Some actions that attorneys general can take including issuing formal opinions to state agencies, proposing legislation, representing their state and state agencies before state and federal courts, and instituting civil suits on behalf of the state. Areas of advocacy can include, but are not limited to, consumer protection and prosecuting price gougers during a pandemic, voting rights during an election cycle, police reform, antitrust and tech industry regulation, and student loan debt relief.
As an example of their service, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s office (New Jersey) immediately began ordering prosecutors to drop marijuana charges since the state decriminalized its use. This will be an important area discussed during the panel, as many people of color are arrested or face legal troubles for marijuana offenses at a higher rate than others.
Confronting Student Loan Debt
Recently, Attorney General Raoul and attorneys general from Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin penned a letter to Congress urging President Biden to use executive authority under the Higher Education Act to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt for all federal student loan borrowers.
The ABA Young Lawyers Division has thoroughly explored the burden of student loan debt for law school graduates, as documented in the 2020 Law School Student Loan Debt Survey Report, and more specifically, law school graduates of color.
Prosecuting Pandemic-Related Crimes
Other recent initiatives attorneys general have taken include prosecuting landlords for illegally evicting and vacating tenants during the pandemic and prosecuting business owners for price-gouging and marking up the prices on essential goods and products.