In Abrams Lecture, New York AG Letitia James details her office’s work on police reform, opioid litigation, and voting protection

In the 24th annual Attorney General Robert Abrams Public Service Lecture on September 14—delivered virtually, a first for the series—New York Attorney General Letitia James spoke to hundreds of online viewers about her priorities as one of the highest-profile state law enforcement officers in the nation.

Letitia James
Letitia James

During remarks introduced by Robert Abrams ‘63, one of her predecessors as New York’s attorney general, James discussed many of her most closely followed initiatives, beginning with her investigation into the interactions between the New York City Police Department and protestors responding to the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. Acknowledging the advisory role of Jacob D. Fuchsberg Professor of Law and Affiliated Professor of Politics Barry Friedman, faculty director of NYU Law’s Policing Project, James referred to a recently released preliminary report that calls for systemic police reforms to help ensure greater accountability to the community. 

“We are meeting and having this conversation at a pivotal moment in the history of American jurisprudence,” said James. “The rule of law is on the front lines of twin pandemics: COVID-19 and the longstanding inequalities that continue to divide us as a nation. At the same time, our police and our justice system have reached a tipping point of distrust. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other unarmed men and women of color at the hands of police have rekindled a flame of outrage that has been smoldering for too long…. Everything should be on the table, and everyone should be at the table.” She also expressed her concerns about and response to the death of Daniel Prude in March after an encounter with Rochester police.

James spoke as well about the suit that her office has filed against opioid distributors and manufacturers. The trial, scheduled to begin this past March, was postponed because of COVID-19. Since the onset of the pandemic, James said, more than 40 states have reported a spike in opioid-related deaths—perhaps due to heightened stress and depression in the population, or possibly because of disruptions to treatment programs, she conjectured. While still preparing for trial, her office is also negotiating a potential settlement in the case, and is working to ensure that any funds recovered would go to prevention, rehabilitation, and recovery programs, James said.

The attorney general detailed her office’s multiple legal battles against the Trump administration. New York has taken the lead in successful lawsuits related to the 2020 census, including combating the administration’s efforts to exclude unauthorized immigrants from population counts used to reallocate seats in the US House of Representatives, to end the census count a month earlier than planned, and to add a citizenship question. “An undercount of the population would deprive the state of political power in Congress,” James said, “and would hamper efforts to serve New Yorkers…. We cannot allow the White House’s constant fearmongering and xenophobia to stop us from being counted. Their racial animus is real, and it has consequences.”

Closely related to the census battles is another suit led by James’s office and filed against the Trump administration in August. The suit alleges that the administration is dismantling the United States Postal Service (USPS) and disrupting its operations in an attempt to undermine the November election. On September 27, less than two weeks after James delivered her remarks, the US District Court for the District of Columbia granted a preliminary injunction in response to the suit, halting the USPS changes nationwide. 

“We must vote,” said James. “They will throw everything at us. We’ve got to recognize the importance of the franchise and that democracy, my friends, is on the ballot in November.”

James, praising both US Representative Hakeem Jeffries ‘97, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and the late Ken Thompson ‘92, who pursued criminal justice reform as Brooklyn district attorney, urged future NYU Law graduates to engage in public service however they could. 

“The movement to save our democracy and our planet is growing,” she said, “and we need your voices and your courage to ensure that America lives up to its promise for all of its people.”

Posted October 21, 2020