Over a year ago, Democrat Letitia James made history when she became the first Black and first woman attorney general elected in the state of New York.
Back then, James set forth a clear vision to “protect the rights and advance the interests of all New Yorkers.” She dubbed herself the “people’s lawyer” very early in her campaign, noting “I am not about privilege or politics. I’m about people…I won’t stop working for you.”
As much as things have changed in the past year and three months (including a worldwide pandemic that is ravaging New York in particular and a presidential impeachment inquiry), some things remain the same. A few of those things include the attorney general’s values, her wish to defend the people of her state and beyond, and many of her original goals.
“I’ve had two primary goals since taking office and that is making sure that everyone recognizes that no one is above the law and continuing to fight for justice for all communities and standing up for the most vulnerable and marginalized communities that need the [most] protection,” James told ESSENCE in an interview.
“My value system has not changed or shifted; it remains the same…I have molded [the office of the attorney general] to reflect those values,” she added.
Since taking office, “Tish,” as the attorney general is affectionately known, has taken many stances both nationally – such as when she pushed back against the Trump administration’s efforts to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census and continuously fighting for the abortion rights – and locally in her home state where she launched a deed theft initiative to protect homeowners from housing scams and actively supported affordable housing opportunities.
One of the issues James has been candid and open about addressing from the very beginning is President Donald Trump’s alleged illegal activities. James has incessantly gone after the president and his interests on both a personal and administrative level.
“This campaign…was about that man in the White House who can’t go a day without threatening our fundamental rights, can’t go a day without threatening the rights of immigrants, can’t go a day without dividing us,” James said back in Sept. 2018 after winning the Democratic primary for attorney general.
Since being sworn into office, James has gone up against the Trump Foundation charity, which the president used to benefit his 2016 campaign, has subpoenaed Deutsche Bank and Investors Bank seeking information regarding the financing of some of the Trump Organization projects, has sued ICE for what her office described as “the Trump Administration’s practice of making civil immigration arrests outside of state courthouses in a manner that interferes with the state’s administration of justice,”… and that’s just scratching the surface on her legal battles with the president.
“I was elected to this office to stand up against anyone who believes that they’re above the law, whether it be a businessman, whether it be a politician or even the president of these United States. No one is above the law,” James said. “It’s important that we enforce and protect that…value.”
Right now, the Attorney General is focused on a new enemy, the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, which continues to sicken hundreds of thousands of people in the United States.
New York is currently the hardest hit location in the country, with more than 84,000 confirmed cases as of Thursday morning and more than 5,000 deaths.
James and her office have jumped in to do their part to address those with legal needs during this uncertain time – including addressing price gouging as cleaning supplies and toilet paper grow scarce, and medical scams from individuals claiming to have a cure for the deadly virus.
“My office is doing everything in its power at this point in time to stop bad actors and to take legal action against those individuals who are taking advantage of the fear and the anxiety that currently exists in New York in response to this pandemic,” James told ESSENCE.
More recently, James’ office has gone after the popular videoconferencing app Zoom, questioning its privacy practices as its popularity blooms during the pandemic when social distancing is strongly encouraged and many are working or learning from home. With the additional users, Zoom has also become the recipient of negative attention with trolls high jacking meetings and lessons and even posting racist messages.
“While Zoom has remediated specific reported security vulnerabilities, we would like to understand whether Zoom has undertaken a broader review of its security practices,” James’ office wrote in a letter to the company earlier this week.
James has also been tackling the racism that has surfaced against the Asian community in the United States since the widespread of the virus, which originated in Wuhan, China. This sentiment has not been aided as President Trump has repeatedly called the virus the “Chinese virus” in multiple twitter rants. James’ office launched a hotline to report related hate crimes.
“It’s unfortunate that during this pandemic that individuals are basically blaming certain ethnic members of ethnic communities,” James said, citing the different cases that her office has been handling. “Hate and discrimination will not be tolerated in the great state of New York. Not now, not ever.”
But as busy as the attorney general and her office is, she emphasized that her office is still prepared and ready to deal with any issues that could arise, pandemic or not.
“Although we are focusing on the coronavirus and responding to it, we still have an obligation and a duty to defend environmental protections, defend reproductive rights, housing rights, labor issues, civil rights, voting rights, and the list goes on and on,” James emphasized. “We are working remotely from home; we have individuals who are staffing our phones. We are still in full operation responding to the coronavirus, but also defending the rule of law.”
To that end, as the pandemic leads to certain medical procedures being put aside unless deemed urgent, James released a statement pushing to ensure abortion access during the crisis, including calling on the federal government to lift restrictions on the medical-abortion prescription drug, Mifepristone, among other measures.
For James, her experiences in life, who she is, impacts how she approaches her role, and why she remains so passionate about protecting the people.
“Who I am as a Black woman, a person of faith, a sister, a daughter, an aunt, and so much more, has impacted the way I see the world, and the way I approach my role as Attorney General,” James said.
“When I was young, a family member of mine got in trouble with the law. And when I went to the court with my mother for the hearing, I noticed that all the individuals facing judgment looked like me, while the lawyers and law enforcement did not,” she added. “That didn’t sit right with me, and so from that moment on, I became consumed with the belief that the law can and should be used for everyone, especially our most unrepresented, our most vulnerable, and our marginalized. That’s the mindset I use to make the decisions that I make each and every day.”
Of course, there are still frustrations and uphill battles, even without a pandemic to consider, such as racism within the school system and on NYC subways. Currently, James says the office is working on resolving litigation surrounding the opioid crisis as it leads lawsuits against opioid manufacturers, distributors, and other defendants. More recently, a highly anticipated trial against McKesson Corp, Johnson & Johnson, and CVS Health Corp, among others, was postponed due to the pandemic.
“Regardless of your station in life, it’s important that I go head to head with any entity or individual in order to protect women, immigrants, people of color, working people, poor people, members of the LGBT community, senior citizens, people who are often ignored and those who are left out of the sunshine of opportunity,” James said. “That’s my raison d’être, that’s my reason for living.”