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One month after President Trump's election, more than 500 people packed into an auditorium in Arlington. Most of those attending from the very blue town, in this very blue state, were shocked, even scared at the prospect of a Trump presidency.
So it fell to the state's attorney general to conduct what felt like a community-wide therapy session. Maura Healey told the crowd that she would use the powers of her office to block any efforts by the newly elected president to roll back progress on civil rights, health care, environmental protection or immigrants’ rights.
“I want you to know that,” Healey, a Democrat, told the crowd. “We may do it through litigation, we may do it through our own rule-making, we may do it through enforcement of our own.”
Since that night a year and a half ago, Healey has made good on that promise (or threat). Her office has filed suit or signed on to legal challenges against the Trump administration 26 times — making her one of the busiest anti-Trump attorneys general in the country.
"What this has been about is standing up for the rule of law, taking on actions that are illegal and unconstitutional,” Healey told WBUR recently. “It doesn't really matter if it's a corporation doing that or if it's, as we've seen, the president of the United States. Nobody is above the law."
Among the many legal actions that Healey has pursued: an ongoing challenge to Trump’s travel ban, now being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court; a challenge to his effort to rescind DACA, which protects young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally. Healey has also sued to protect part of the Affordable Care Act. She has sued the Department of Education three times for failing to protect student lenders from fraud. And she has sued or joined other lawsuits against EPA chief Scott Pruitt nine times for halting, delaying or rolling back environmental regulations.
And the legal battles go on.
"We have the federal government fighting us right now in the courts here in Massachusetts, challenging our authority to enforce even state laws,” Healey said, referring to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is challenging efforts by several states to rein in student loan debt collectors. Healey sued a Pennsylvania loan company, alleging it overcharged Massachusetts students. In response, the Trump administration said the suit usurps federal authority, and tried to get the case dismissed.
"It's actually remarkable that the U.S. Department of Education came into Massachusetts courts and challenged our authority to enforce state consumer protection law on behalf of students who were victimized by predatory lending practices,” Healey said.
A Massachusetts Superior Court judge allowed Healey's case to go forward.
But the Trump administration's argument — that Healey is overstepping her authority — is one on which her political opponents hope to capitalize.
Among them is Cape Cod attorney Dan Shores, one of two Republicans running against Healey, who says she's spending too much time suing Trump.
“For the most part, these are politically motivated lawsuits that don't directly affect the people of Massachusetts to the degree that they should,” said Shores, who accuses Healey of misplaced priorities and failing to focus her efforts closer to home.
“For every lawsuit that the sitting attorney general files against the Trump administration," he said, "that's one more drug dealer who goes free, one more public official who commits an act of corruption, or one more senior who's defrauded."
Healey is among 22 Democratic state attorneys general who, as a group, has been extraordinarily busy opposing the Trump administration. Politico recently branded them "the shock troops of the Democratic resistance." In 2017 alone, they sued the Trump administration 35 times. By contrast, Republican attorneys general sued the Obama administration 46 times — but over eight years.
“It is an extraordinarily high number [of lawsuits] from my Democratic colleagues,” says Leslie Rutledge, the attorney general of Arkansas and the chair of the Republican Attorneys General Association.
Rutledge argues that Republican AGs limited their challenges to the Obama administration to issues of law -- whether, for example, the president had the constitutional right to impose environmental rules through executive order. By contrast, she argues, Democrats like Healey are using their legal authority inappropriately.
"Their actions are based more on politics than on defending states’ rights and the rule of law,” Rutledge said. “That's why we're seeing the copious amounts of lawsuits being filed against this administration."
The GOP complaint is dismissed as blatant hypocrisy by Democrats like Scott Harshbarger, who served as attorney general in Massachusetts during the 1990s.
"Republicans are masters at this -- [doing] what they did, with no shame at all, and then turning around and criticizing Democrats for doing the very same thing,” Harshbarger said.
And yet, Harshbarger acknowledges that over the years, Democrats -- as well as Republicans — have politicized attorneys general offices across the country, and he says it didn't used to be this way. For example, when he was in office, he and his fellow Democrats worked closely with Republican attorneys general on the historic tobacco settlement, which required major cigarette companies to pay back billions of dollars to the states in tobacco-related Medicaid costs. Harshbarger says back then, the attorneys general rarely pursued overtly political agendas.
Still, Harshbarger believes Healey is correct to challenge Trump, because he says so many of the president's policies threaten the interests of Massachusetts.
But he says Healey needs to walk a fine line.
“You have to be sure that you don't forget you're from this state,” said Harshbarger, who cautions Healey not to get sucked into the Trump vortex so deeply that she loses sight of challenges closer to home, like the problems afflicting the state police or the opioid addiction crisis. If that were to happen, Harshbarger says the court of public opinion — as well as the courts of law — might well start viewing her actions as political.
“If they ever started to believe that, the credibility of the office would be at stake,” he said.
For her part, Healey says suing the Trump administration may get the headlines, but it's only part of what keeps her office busy. She says her staff of lawyers are focused on many other issues, including ratepayer rights, gun safety and the opioid crisis, which she calls her top priority.
"With respect to the work around the Trump administration, I would really like to see a day when we didn't have to sue the federal government,” Healey said.
But as long as Trump remains president — and Healey remains attorney general — that seems unlikely.
This segment aired on May 17, 2018.
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