During his 15 years as New York’s attorney general, Robert Abrams ’63 transformed that office in New York state and the role of attorney general throughout the United States. Forging coalitions with attorneys general of other states and successfully shaping law and policy at the national level, he blazed a trail for today’s attorneys general to take collective action to protect the rights and well-being of their states’ citizens.
Reflecting Abrams’s deep devotion to the public interest, NYU Law established the annual Attorney General Robert Abrams Public Service Lecture. Now in its 25th year, the lecture series brings speakers—often state attorneys general—to NYU Law to discuss the meaning and impact of their careers in public service and to help inspire students to devote some or all of their professional lives to public service.
“Robert Abrams embodies the rule of law and the pursuit of justice,” then-New York Governor David Paterson said when the Justice Building in Albany was renamed The Robert Abrams Building for Law and Justice in 2009. “He fought fiercely for the people of this state, protecting consumer and civil rights and launching groundbreaking efforts in the areas of environmental protection and criminal prosecution. He has left an indelible mark on New York’s history.”
Now Abrams has provided a look back at his career with the publication of a memoir, The Luckiest Guy in the World: My Journey in Politics. In a Q&A, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser ’94, former dean of University of Colorado Law School, interviews Abrams about his book, his work, and why public service is more important than ever.
Phil Weiser: When I was growing up in New York, Bob, you were an inspiration to me, providing a model of how an elected official can serve the public. We are, unfortunately, living at a time when faith in public servants is at a low ebb, but your new memoir provides a master class in what authentic public service looks like. What are the roots of your commitment to public service?
Robert Abrams: As I mention in the opening chapter of my book, my parents and immigrant grandparents had a real impact on shaping my values. They instilled in me a sense of social justice. They saw the indecency of sweatshops and the disgrace of racial segregation in our society.
In addition, as a student at NYU Law School, I was encouraged to understand that it’s not enough just to be a lawyer. If you got involved in political campaigns or work in government, you could help improve peoples lives by bringing about social change and reform. I took that advice to heart. My goal was always to help make a difference, driven by a conviction that public service should be an inspired goal for all of us as articulated by the inspiring words and deeds of the new president at that time, John F. Kennedy.
Your central legacy is the invention of the role of the modern state attorney general. As a candidate and then as attorney general, you pioneered the concept of the job as serving as the “people’s lawyer.” How did you develop that vision and put it into practice?
I wanted to expansively utilize the powers of that office on behalf of the citizens of the state. I saw the office of attorney general as malleable—an office that could be shaped to the priorities of the occupant. It was my goal to maximize the powers and the potential of that office to work for the average person who could not individually fight consumer, environmental and civil rights battles against powerful adversaries. Breaking new ground and winning important victories for the people was high on my agenda.
Historically, the role of state AG was that of a low-key, backseat governmental player. My hope was to make the New York AG’s Office a front-line protector and a significant force for change as well as a model for the nation.
As New York Attorney General, you had a national impact. Your leadership as the President of the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) and the force of your vision and character spearheaded the impact of “multi-state” actions. How were you able to bring different states together to act as an effective force for change?
In a nonpartisan way, I reached out to my fellow attorneys general, showing deference and respect to each state, whether large or small, whether the attorney general was a Democrat or a Republican. I was also willing to share resources and work cooperatively with other states. And the time was right. My election as New York AG in 1978 was just after the 1976 Hart Scott Rodino Act, which called for a spirit of cooperative federalism, where states would be given the opportunity to directly enforce federal antitrust law. As the Supreme Court stated in the California v. American Stores case, in which I was involved, the role of states in antitrust enforcement “was in no sense an afterthought; it was an integral part of the congressional plan for protecting competition.”
I worked to make that vision a reality, and state AGs became a force in the antitrust arena. During the hands-off Reagan years, New York and other states acted together and effectively filled the void due to the lack of federal enforcement. Former US Attorney General Ed Meese made a revealing admission to me: “All that stuff about returning power to the states, that wasn’t really what we wanted. We had a laissez-faire plan of non-enforcement. You outfoxed us. We won the battle, but lost the war! We never thought that you guys would have the competence to do this. We never imagined that you would be able to work together.”
You saw that it was important not just to organize states to act collectively and devote New York AG office resources to multi-state actions, but also to empower NAAG to support them. In particular, you set up what’s still known as the “Milk Fund.”
We had an important milk price-fixing investigation which led to a round of lawsuits against the major milk companies in the New York City metropolitan area, resulting in 40 convictions and millions of dollars of recovery, which was distributed to public and private schools. I made sure that additional money was allocated to the National Association of Attorneys General to enhance states ability to enforce antitrust laws. This fund allows attorneys general engaged in multi-state antitrust actions to borrow money for experts and other litigation costs. If their antitrust enforcement effort is successful, they repay the borrowed money and thus the fund is replenished. This “Milk Fund” has assisted attorneys general in dozens of cases over these many years and still exists today, some forty years later.
Your efforts really laid the foundation for future state attorneys general work, including the very impactful multistate tobacco litigation.
It was the beginning of a new era. What we did in New York—vigorous antitrust enforcement and taking the lead in creating a coalition of attorneys general—altered the pattern of antitrust enforcement across the nation. The states became co-equal enforcers along with the federal government, with equal respect eventually being shown by practitioners for state as well as federal action. This movement spread to other areas of consumer, environmental, and civil rights protection.
You also led the way in hiring women and minorities and placed them in major posts. Was that pursuant to a plan?
Yes. I’m very proud of the fact that we transformed the face of the attorney general’s office. I appointed women and minority community members to the highest positions in the office—such as Solicitor General, division heads, bureau chiefs and heads of regional offices. And when they left the office after years of dedicated service, many became city, state, and federal judges.
Leaders like Bob Abrams don’t come along often. Your career is the antidote to the level of cynicism the public has about elected officials, and your authentic commitment to serving the public and making an impact shines through in this memoir.
Thank you, Phil! You’re overly generous. In the course of my lifetime, I met able, honest people—Republicans and Democrats alike—working in government to implement the vision of our founders. I discovered if in all interactions and decision making, there was respect shown to others and a listening ear welcoming all points of view, most times a worthwhile common ground could be achieved.
But good things don’t just automatically happen. If elected officials or appointed bureaucrats are to be motivated to be sensitive to the will and needs of the people, the public has to be actively engaged. Every individual can have an impact. It might sound trite, but it is true: your voice and your vote can make a difference.
Posted March 16, 2021