Not long after his office won a guilty verdict against Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison got a phone call.
It came from his Massachusetts counterpart and good friend Maura Healey.
She wasn’t just offering congratulations, though that was part of the reason for her call. Healey was looking for advice about what to say about the verdict — to the public, and also to her own staff, which had been watching the trail with rapt attention.
“I wanted help in my messaging — in messaging what I knew wasn’t justice,” Healey said. “He told me, ‘This isn’t justice, but it is accountability. And accountability is a step toward justice.’”
As prosecutors at all levels have been thrust onto center stage in the battle for racial and social justice, Healey and Ellison have found kindred spirits in one another.
“He’s a lawyer’s lawyer and a real fighter for social justice and he leads with his heart and the law and that’s always resonated with me,” Healey said.
Though the specific roles of attorneys general can vary from state to state, they have sought each other’s counsel in dealing with the many common issues they face.
“I admire her, I like her a lot, she’s just a good person,” Ellison said. “We’re walking the same path.”
After assuming control of the Chauvin case, Ellison spent nearly a year in the challenging position of overseeing one of the most closely watched prosecutions in years.
It wasn’t for the faint of heart.
“It’s very tricky when you have a high-profile matter, you have people in the streets demanding accountability, and you have to investigate your case,” Healey said. “That was a tough position to be in for a year.”
The big question for attorneys general now, Ellison said, is how to advocate for systemic change. Winning one trial is just a part of a longer campaign.
Ellison, who spent 12 years in Congress before becoming attorney general, said he and his peers have a major role to play in lobbying for legislation, including a police-reform bill pending in Congress and named for Floyd.
“The first thing we have is the bully pulpit,” Ellison said. “We should speak up and lend credence to the activists on the ground. We can make it clear that these folks are not just troublemaking protesters, they are drawing attention to an appalling situation going on in our country — which can be fixed if we will take it seriously.”
Noting that other police officers provided some of the most damning testimony against Chauvin, Ellison argued that even within police departments there is an appetite for change.
“What happens next will be played out at the national, state, and local level,” Ellison said. “I think you’re going to see officers who want to do a good job break ranks with those who are not there to do a good job. In our case, we had a chief and several other officers testify against Derek Chauvin, and I think you’re going to see more of that. We need the internals of police departments to change.”
Not all of Ellison’s discussions with Healey revolve around race, of course. They talk about the host of issues their offices face — from consumer protection to health care. They talk about sports, a shared passion. Healey spoke to his class at the University of Minnesota law school about pushing for a fair settlement against Purdue Pharma, the most prominent villain in the opioid epidemic. Sometimes they just trade emojis.
In this moment, prosecutors are called on to play a role never expected of their predecessors. Traditionally, the people in those jobs have been staunch defenders of the system. Now they are expected to work within that system, but work to change it as well. Only a few people know what it’s like to try to strike that balance.
“You really develop a bond, because very few people know what you’re going through in those positions,” Healey said. “Those kinds of relationships are really powerful and important.”