Op-Ed: Attorney General as Threat to the Rule of Law

Op-Ed: Attorney General as Threat to the Rule of Law

Originally Published in City Journal on October 18, 2022

By her words and deeds, New York attorney general Letitia James threatens the rule of law. Her political obsession with former president Donald J. Trump recently culminated in a civil lawsuit against the Queens-born real-estate mogul, his three adult children, and his company. In the complaint, James demands $250 million in damages and an end to the family’s New York business operations.

James is a career left-wing activist, prone to rhetorical bomb-throwing. In 2018, she was elected New York’s chief law-enforcement officer. Immediately prior, she was New York City Public Advocate, a useless position, with responsibilities described as “one of the great mysteries of local politics.” Created in 1993, it’s an office with a vague mandate offering unhelpful tautological commitments to its occupants: “the public advocate shall serve as the public advocate.” Any honest public advocate would recognize the office’s irrelevance and work to shut it down.

Nevertheless, New Yorkers promoted James, in part, because of her peculiar campaign platform—to take down the 45th president of the United States. American politics has always been a rough business, but campaigning to imprison or bankrupt a fellow officeholder, much less the leader of the free world, was partisanship taken to extremes.

Yet it was the central conceit of James’s 2018 campaign. If elected, she promised to use her perch as attorney general to “take on Donald Trump” and “investigate Trump’s New York Business.” Likewise, she referred publicly to then-President Trump as “illegitimate,” and described how she “look[ed] forward to going into the office of Attorney General every day, suing [President Trump] . . . and then going home!” As if these outbursts were not enough, she declared, “The president of the United States has to worry about three things: Mueller, Cohen, and Tish James. We’re all closing in on him.”

These instances of her personalized and prejudicial public sentiments can no longer be ignored as the rantings of a left-wing agitator cum prosecutor. James seemingly crossed the line from issuing threats to abusing legal process. Without a hint of self-awareness, she stated in her Trump-lawsuit press conference that “[t]here are not two sets of laws for people in this country; we must hold former presidents to the same standards as everyday Americans.” How many ordinary Americans did she publicly threaten to close in on and sue as she ran for attorney general?

James didn’t criminally prosecute Trump because she doesn’t have the statutory authority to do so under her case’s legal theory. Thus, she referred her putative findings to the Biden Justice Department for criminal prosecution—the same department that, in an unprecedented act, raided Trump’s home pursuant to a search warrant.

There is a term for all this: the weaponization of government—to harass, punish, ruin, and, if possible, imprison one’s political enemies. It’s a threat that transcends any one person.

With this kind of sustained campaign by government elites to destroy one man, it matters not the merits, or lack thereof, of a particular lawsuit or criminal investigation, because the personalized nature of the process undermines the rule of law. This principle holds that neutral legal rules, and their application, govern the conduct of all men, and that no one is above—or below—the law. This applies with greater force to prosecutorial and state authorities. When an investigation or legal process is inconsistent with the rule of law, it renders itself illegitimate.

In 1940, then-United States attorney general Robert Jackson formulated the standard on which to judge the legitimacy of law-enforcement activity: “the greatest danger of abuse of prosecuting power lies,” he said, when “law enforcement becomes personal, and the real crime becomes that of being unpopular with the predominant or governing group.” While James plays for the cameras with mocking comments about “the art of the steal,” New Yorkers of good will, especially conscientious members of its liberal political class, should publicly reject her use of state power for political and personal ends. To remain silent is to embrace tacitly the menace of weaponized government.

Whatever one’s opinion of former president Trump, the time to speak up is now. To “get Trump,” progressive political actors and their allies in state media have eviscerated constitutional norms and guardrails meant to serve as a bulwark against unjust prosecution and vindictive financial ruin. With these rule-of-law safeguards compromised, little will be left in place when you offend—as Trump did—the fragile sensibilities of American elites, and they unleash the Leviathan of the state upon you.

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