‘The People’s Lawyers’: Attorneys General Letitia James and Dana Nessel on Reclaiming and Rebuilding U.S. Democracy

On Sept. 7, Ms. recorded a “fireside chat”-style discussion with Attorneys General Letitia James (N.Y.) and Dana Nessel (Mich.)—two true trailblazers in the fight for justice and democracy—moderated by election administration expert and governor of the United States Postal Service, Amber McReynolds. The full recording is available here; read on for our favorite highlights of that conversation.  

We express our gratitude to Onida Coward-Mayers for her support in assembling this powerhouse panel.

On Personal and Professional Drive:

New York Attorney General Leticia James: I’m a former public defender and when I decided to run for office, there were not a lot of women who looked like me. I wanted to make sure that women who historically have been left out of the table of democracy their voices were heard.

One day at my coffee shop, a young woman whose husband was about to be deported asked me for legal advice. We sat down. She cried. We cried together. I provided her with assistance and we saved her husband from deportation. It was at that point in time a lightbulb went off: It was the law that I needed to pursue. It was justice that I needed to pursue. I needed to continue on that path—and here I am now representing the great state of New York, continuing to stand up for vulnerable and marginalized populations using the local law as a sword and as a shield.

My office is focusing on making sure that New York remains a safe haven for all who seek an abortion.

AG Letitia James
Attorney General Letitia James makes an announcement about New York’s Reproductive Freedom and Equity Program, a new initiative to provide financial resources to abortion providers on May 9, 2022, in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel: In the early part of 2017, I attended more marches and rallies within a span of a handful of months than I have probably in my entire life put together. Finally, I turned to my wife and I said, “I have to do something else besides protest.”

Attorneys general across the nation were bringing cases against the Trump administration—and they were winning. I saw that really as the best way to fight back against constitutional trespasses against the people of my state. So, the first time ever I ran for office was in 2018, which probably was ill-advised [for AG] to be your very first office. 

I was sworn into office on Jan. 1, 2019, and I’ve had the opportunity to serve side by side with AG James and a number of our colleagues that came in that year as well. It’s been a privilege and an honor of a lifetime for me.

On the Challenges to Democracy:

AG James: AG Nessel and I are both firsts. She’s one of the first openly gay attorneys general. I’m the first African American woman elected statewide. But what we face now is an existential threat to all that I believe in and to our democracy as a whole. 

We’re seeing here in New York a number of trans women who have been murdered, most of them trans women of color. We are seeing women come to New York state to seek abortions because they live in states that have banned abortion with no exceptions for rape and for incest. We are seeing floods and fires and change in our environment as a result of those who deny science. And so, we need to recognize that we live in a pluralistic society which respects the democracy and the voices of all individuals.  

AG Nessel: One of the differences between AG James’ work and my work is simply that she is in a blue state, and I am in a very purple state where we have a lot of divisiveness.

On one hand, our executive office holders are all progressive Democratic women. On the other hand, the legislature has been gerrymandered—though that’s going to change because the voters in my state passed a 2018 ballot proposal that allowed for a bipartisan redistricting commission. So, the districts have been redrawn fairly for the first time in my lifetime and I think that we will likely have a much more balanced, more fair and more representative legislature as of next year. 

The 2022 election—I know this is nonpartisan and we can’t talk about specifics—but the fact is we have candidates for pivotal state offices like attorneys general and secretaries of state that are incredibly powerful positions as it pertains to elections. Those are the chief election officer, the chief law enforcement officer, the defender of the will of the people for offices like mine and AG James, and in it you have people who are running that are election deniers or people who don’t believe in the rule of law and don’t really prescribe to the old fashioned notion that the candidate who receives the most votes ought to be certified as the winner of an election. 

Amber McReynolds: Our democracy is at an inflection point. I want to highlight quickly a couple of statistics that come from the presidential election.

First, it was the most highly anticipated presidential election of our time in 2020, and yet only 66 percent of voters nationally, eligible voters, voted. That means that one in three voters—if you go to the grocery store or you’re dropping your kids off at school, know that when you’re in your communities one in three people that you might be engaging with did not vote in the 2020 presidential election. That amounts to 80 million voters who were eligible but did not participate.

When asked why, many of them weren’t able to register to vote in time because there were outdated deadlines in their states. They might have forgotten or missed the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot or maybe weren’t eligible to get it. They might not have been able to take off work or couldn’t afford to wait in line for three hours to vote at their polling place on Election Day. 

I would not be in this position today but for campaign financing. Small donations fueled me into public office, and I prefer those dollars to corporate and other special interests influencing our elections. 

AG Letitia James
Attorneys general are the top legal officers of their state or territory. They advise and represent their legislature and state agencies and act as the “people’s lawyer” for the citizens. (Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock)

… And the Solutions

AG James: In New York, ranked-choice voting resulted in over 28 women being elected into a 51-member body. The majority of them are women, and now I am represented by one of the first Black out gay women in New York City, Council Member Crystal Hudson. 

It is also critically important that we repeal Citizens United, that we have campaign finance in the city and in the state of New York as well as across the nation. I would not be in this position today but for campaign financing. Small donations fueled me into public office, and I prefer those dollars to corporate and other special interests influencing our elections. 

AG Nessel: I’ll talk about the electoral college and say this: I’m thrilled to have presidential candidates come to my state every four years because they so badly need Michigan to swing their way since we go back and forth, back and forth. But to basically ignore New York and California because there’s no value in talking to people in those states once you get the primary, I think they’re disenfranchising a whole lot of people and you end up with presidents elected by a minority of voters.

That’s why I think you end up with a United States Supreme Court that’s so unreflective of the values of the people—because they were appointed by presidents who didn’t win the popular vote. 

Amber McReynolds: As part of improving our civic health, we have to be thinking about future generations and how we can better educate our students and our young people. Every election that a ballot arrives at my home, my 9- and 11-year-old go through the ballot with me and they’re able to ask me questions like what does a governor do? What does attorney general do? What does a school board do? And we have that civics lesson every single election. I would encourage others to do this and help our future generations engage and learn how to engage in a positive way.

In 2017, I attended more marches and rallies within a span of a handful of months than I have probably in my entire life put together. Finally, I turned to my wife and I said, ‘I have to do something else besides protest.’

AG Dana Nessel
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson at the 2022 Michigan Democratic Party Nominating Convention Aug. 21. (Twitter)

On AGs and Abortion Rights:

AG Leticia James: My office is focusing on making sure that New York remains a safe haven for all who seek an abortion. We’ve convened a pro bono task force of the nation’s top law firms and legal reproductive rights organizations. We’ve launched a hotline to provide legal guidance and resources to patients, to healthcare providers, and to supporters seeking information. The hotline is 212-899-5567. You can also get additional information here.  

We will help doctors who may be prosecuted for providing medical help. We are providing training for medical professionals and individuals not only here in New York but all across the nation. It is critically important that individuals know that New York will provide resources to individuals who come to our state who need financial assistance in seeking an abortion. 

I’ve joined with other attorney generals to submit amicus briefs to oppose total abortion bans in Texas and Idaho. We have argued that abortion care is covered by a federal law known as the Federal Emergency Care and Medical Treatment Care Act. 

We have stood up for medical abortion. We had a conversation with social media and e-commerce companies to remove any misinformation and disinformation particularly as it relates to pregnancy crisis centers. 

The vast majority of individuals who will be struggling to find abortions and get abortions are women of color, women living in poverty, women who are struggling each and every day—and AG Nessel and I are here to protect their rights and to make sure that they have access to a safe, legal and affordable if not free abortion. If not in New York, Michigan, or some other place in this country, which is a safe haven for women. 

Protesters march through downtown Detroit on May 7, 2022—five days after the Dobbs leaked opinion—in support of Roe v. Wade. (Matthew Hatcher / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

AG Nessel: In my state, there was a 1930 law that I knew would spring immediately back into effect prohibiting all abortions—no exceptions for rape, not for incest, not to preserve the health of the mother. I’m representing the governor in an effort to have that law declared unconstitutional and a violation of due process rights, equal protection rights, bodily integrity. 

Editor’s note: On Sept. 7, Michigan Court of Claims Judge Elizabeth Gleicher ruled that the state’s 1931 abortion ban violates the Michigan Constitution because it “would deprive pregnant women of their right to bodily integrity and autonomy, and the equal protection of the law.” Gleicher issued a permanent injunction blocking Michigan’s anti-abortion prosecutors from enforcing the law.

We had multiple doctors testify that they didn’t know what the hell that meant to save the life of the woman: Does that mean a 60 percent chance she’s going to die, 70 percent chance? Do you have to wait when somebody comes in with an ectopic pregnancy, and that pregnancy is never going to be viable, but technically they’re not dead yet? These doctors emphasized just how many women they estimated either would have profound health complications as a result of the law or just outright die. 

You know, the fundamental equal protection violation is that we never regulate men’s bodies this way. The government doesn’t have a say. If you have testicular cancer, if you have prostate cancer, you just want to get a vasectomy, the government doesn’t get involved at all. Not true with women’s bodies. The government feels just fine regulating women’s bodies in a way that men’s bodies are never subject to being politicized or regulated. The fact that so many seem totally fine with that is, honestly, it’s a source of sadness to me that I can’t even fully express—that there are people who just don’t see women as full humans and feel free to regulate our bodies. 

I hope one day to be able to emulate the work that AG James has done in New York and to be a safe haven for women all across the Midwest. But for right now, we are not that state, and we have to make sure whether it’s through a court ruling or whether through a ballot proposal that we ensure the protection of the many millions of women of reproductive age in my state.

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