State Watch

Democratic AGs sue Trump at record pace

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Democratic attorneys general in a handful of states are mounting a fierce battle against President Trump’s government, filing almost 50 lawsuits that have bogged down some of the administration’s key initiatives.

The wave of lawsuits, Democrats say, is the product of an unprecedented effort to coordinate legal actions across state lines, both to defend Obama-era rules and to block what they see as Trump’s overreach.

{mosads}“Is it fair to say a big part of my day now involves the Trump administration? Yes,” said Bob Ferguson (D), Washington’s attorney general. “If this administration continues on a path of ignoring federal law and the Constitution, then they’ll see us in court. And, frankly, they’ll continue to lose.”

Democrats barely waited for members of the Trump administration to find their offices before they began filing suits. On Jan. 23, just three days after Trump’s inauguration, a group of eight attorneys general sued the administration over emissions standards for middle- and heavyweight vehicles. Another group of 16 states and the District of Columbia sought to intervene in a case weighing the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

In the month after that, eight states filed seven lawsuits challenging the validity of Trump’s ban on travel to the U.S. from several Muslim-majority countries.

“There’s more coordination than there’s ever been at the national level,” said Sean Rankin, who heads the Democratic Attorneys General Association, an outside group that works to elect Democratic candidates. “Democratic [attorneys general] are the only group of elected officials at this moment in time that have got the tools to defend the civil liberties of the American people.”

Attorneys general who once rarely interacted now convene on a weekly conference call organized by Rankin’s group. They have met together at quarterly meetings held around the country, and several have formed close bonds.

“In the past, we’d see each other at conferences,” Ferguson said. “The stakes are certainly especially high on litigation against the administration, and I think it’s fair to say that direct contact among AGs has increased accordingly.”

Perhaps as a result, the newly litigious Democrats have targeted a wide array of federal agencies. Democrats have taken aim at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where Director Scott Pruitt has aggressively sought to roll back Obama-era environmental rules. They have challenged the Department of Education, where Secretary Betsy DeVos has changed rules about student loans. And they have sued the Department of Health and Human Services, which has sought to make changes to the Affordable Care Act.

Another lawsuit is in the works: Attorneys general from half a dozen states have said they will sue the Federal Communications Commission over its move to end net neutrality.

On a single day in October, the Democratic attorneys general filed three lawsuits. California and New Mexico targeted the Interior Department’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue for repealing a rule calculating royalties on oil, gas and coal extracted from federal lands. A coalition of 17 states and the District of Columbia sued the Department of Education for failing to enforce the Gainful Employment Rule. And a group of nine states and D.C. sued the Department of Homeland Security for failing to comply with a request made under the Freedom of Information Act about immigration policies.

The following day, another group of 17 states and D.C. sued over the administration’s threats to end subsidies for the Affordable Care Act.

The suits represent a reversal of political fortunes from the last several years of the Obama administration, when Republican-led states were filing lawsuits virtually nonstop against environmental, workplace and education rules.

“In the Obama years, we saw conservative states such as Texas aggressively sue the Obama administration over issues from ObamaCare to immigration. This is just the flip side,” said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.

Some of the Democratic suits have succeeded in blocking Trump administration proposals. Federal courts have issued preliminary injunctions against a ban on transgender troops serving in the military and against various iterations of the travel ban. Those courts have also blocked the EPA or the Interior Department from rolling back a handful of environmental regulations.

Several White House spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment about the lawsuits.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D), appointed to become the state’s chief legal officer when Kamala Harris won election to the Senate, has mounted the most aggressive campaign against the Trump administration. Becerra’s office has filed, joined or sought to intervene in 30 lawsuits against the administration, according to The Hill’s analysis of data provided by the Democratic Attorneys General Association.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) has been a part of 28 suits against the Trump administration. Massachusetts has filed, joined or sought to intervene in 26 suits, and Washington and Maryland have both been a part of 25 suits.

Suing a federal administration can help bolster an attorney general’s political standing, Hasen said. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) followed that model as attorney general, when he sued the Obama administration repeatedly before winning election as governor in 2014.

“Aside from the ideological disagreement, these kinds of lawsuits are good state politics, giving voters in the state a reason to be happy with the actions of the state’s governor or attorney general,” Hasen said.

Becerra faces a competitive primary as he seeks a full term later this year. Schneiderman and Ferguson have been mentioned as possible gubernatorial candidates down the line. Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin (D) is running for an open seat in Congress this year.

Democrats control 22 of the 50 attorney general offices across the United States, as well as the District of Columbia. Republicans control 27 offices, and Alaska’s attorney general is an independent.

The party hopes a groundswell of opposition to Trump will help bolster their ranks in 2018. Control of 35 attorney general offices will be decided in November’s midterm elections, including 18 Republican-held seats and 12 Democratic-held seats. Five additional attorneys general will be appointed by governors or state legislatures up for election this year.

At least six Republican attorneys general will not seek reelection, including in states like Florida, Nevada and Colorado. Four Democratic attorneys general are term-limited out of office, but all four represent deep-blue states.

“The combination of the election year, the wind at our back and continuing the work that we’re doing, I think we’ll actually see an extraordinary political year,” Rankin said.

This story was updated at 9:15 a.m.

Tags Betsy DeVos Donald Trump Scott Pruitt Xavier Becerra
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