Opinion | No Back-Room Deal to Replace Schneiderman

Opinion | No Back-Room Deal to Replace Schneiderman


New Yorkers reacted with revulsion when State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned this week amid allegations he had beaten, choked and threatened to kill women he dated.

Albany lawmakers, true to form, saw political opportunity.

Assembly Democrats, who have the power to pick Mr. Schneiderman’s replacement, are moving behind closed doors to bump out the supremely qualified acting attorney general, Barbara Underwood, and install New York City’s public advocate, Letitia James. This back-room deal offers dividends to just about everybody except the public the legislators took an oath to serve.

Ms. Underwood, who, as state solicitor general, temporarily took over Mr. Schneiderman’s job when he left office, should be allowed to remain in the position until voters choose a permanent replacement in November. Ms. Underwood, a former Yale Law School professor, has decades of experience, has argued 20 cases before the Supreme Court and clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall. She is more qualified than anyone else whose name has been mentioned.

Instead of doing the responsible thing, though, politicians are poised to take advantage of an unexpected vacancy to advance their own political causes.

The Assembly speaker, Carl Heastie, said Wednesday that he had created a committee to interview candidates to fill the post and was accepting résumés from qualified applicants. Under law, the decision is made by a joint vote of the Senate and Assembly. Mr. Heastie holds sway because his Assembly Democrats would alone be only a handful of votes short of the number needed.

Mr. Heastie said Ms. Underwood was invited to participate in the process. But word is, the fix is already in for Ms. James, a Democrat serving in the amorphous role of public advocate. Several people familiar with the matter said Mr. Heastie wants Ms. James as attorney general in order to remove her from the running in what is expected to be a crowded race to replace Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2021. Doing so would ease the way for the Bronx borough president, Ruben Diaz Jr., who is thought to be Mr. Heastie’s favored candidate for mayor.

Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Mr. Heastie, denies that such political maneuvering is at play. “False, False, False,” he said in a brief phone call Wednesday.

We hope Mr. Whyland is telling the truth. Because unseating a superbly competent acting state attorney general this way to benefit allies is the kind of manipulation that conjures images of men in smoke-filled rooms, willing to sell out their constituents for a cheap political fix.

Even by Albany standards, they will have outdone themselves, by giving Ms. James the unearned advantage of incumbency in the September Democratic primary. She and anyone else interested in the job should be given the chance to take their case directly to the voters in elections later this year.

Such back-room dealing by the Assembly Democrats would also amount to the second major betrayal of the public’s trust from state elected officials in under a week. The first, of course, being by Mr. Schneiderman, who paraded as a crusader for women’s rights while allegedly abusing the women in his own life, and using the powers of his office to try to control them.

Whoever serves as state attorney general may soon find herself or himself in the role of a final backstop in the defense of American democracy in the coming months, by prosecuting Trump aides on any violations of state law in the event the president pardons them.

No one whose name has been floated so far is better suited for that job than Ms. Underwood. Albany legislators should back off, do their actual jobs and leave her alone.



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