By William A. Jacobson
The New York Attorney General’s Office is a powerful institution, comprised of over 650 assistant attorney generals and 1,700 employees, with statutory criminal and civil enforcement authority over almost every aspect of life in the state.
With that great power comes great responsibility to be politically neutral, to enforce the laws not for political gain and not to exact political revenge. Concerns over past prosecutorial abuse of power led to the creation in 2021 of the New York Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct, designed to hold prosecutors “to the highest ethical standards in the exercise of their duties.”
Political neutrality of prosecutors in the conduct of their duties is at the core of what our system of justice should look like. Unfortunately, political neutrality is not what Attorney General Letitia James has delivered. (RELATED: SHEFFIELD: Powell Won’t Admit How America Got Into Such Dire Economic Straits In The First Place)
Instead, James ran for office on a promise to get Donald Trump on something, anything, and has conducted herself in office to exact political revenge on the former president, his businesses, and his family. Her legion of prosecutors and investigators have poured over and looked into every nook and cranny of Trump’s sprawling commercial enterprises in search of a crime.
This was all part of the plan.
During her 2018 campaign for attorney general, James proudly declared: “He should be charged with obstructing justice. I believe that the president of these United States can be indicted for criminal offenses and we would join with law enforcement and other attorneys general across the nation in removing this president from office.”
James tweeted the campaign endorsement from Rep. Maxine Waters that James would be an attorney general who “who will investigate Trump” and promised that “[t]he president of the United States has to worry about three things; Mueller, Cohen, and Tish James.”
In her election night victory speech, James boasted: “I will be shining a bright light into every dark corner of his real estate dealings….” and before taking office repeated her threat to target Trump world: “We will use every area of the law to investigate President Trump and his business transactions and that of his family as well.”
The latest salvo was a major announcement earlier this week of civil, not criminal, charges against Trump, various Trump businesses, and two of the former president’s children, based on alleged fraud dating back over a decade in connection with real estate valuations provided to lenders. James seeks to shut down the businesses and bar Trump and his family from doing business in New York.
Yet no lender is alleged to have lost money, and even The New York Times had to admit that James will have a hard time proving the case: “Property valuations are often subjective, and … all his loans are either current or were paid off, some before they were due.”
The lawsuit also comes as polls show James in an unexpectedly tight race, possibly even trailing her Republican opponent. The announcement of civil charges against Trump on the eve of the election has the clear appearance of political motivation to boost James.
Tish James campaigned on and conducted her office for the purpose of investigating a political opponent and those around him trying to find a crime. That is Soviet-level prosecutorial abuse where individuals are targeted not to prosecute a crime, but to sift through their lives in the hope of finding a crime.
And lacking a prosecutable crime, trying to bring them down and purge them from the economic world through a civil lawsuit.
James’ conduct is a disgrace to the Office of Attorney General.
William A. Jacobson is a clinical professor of Law at Cornell Law School, and founder of the Legal Insurrection politics and law website. He is a 1981 graduate of Hamilton College and a 1984 graduate of Harvard Law School.