Donald Trump hadn’t even taken office before Attorney General Maura Healey vowed to fight him in court. In a November 2016 fund-raising appeal to supporters, she described herself as “The People’s Lawyer” and pledged to prevent the president-elect from carrying out his “unconstitutional campaign promises.”
Days after Trump’s inauguration, Healey followed through on that promise, joining a lawsuit challenging Trump’s initial travel ban that halted entry into the United States from seven Muslim countries and that suspended the admission of refugees.
Healey would go on to sue the Trump administration nearly 100 times — usually joining a coalition of states. The only states that sued Trump more often were New York, California, and Maryland, according to Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette University who tracks multistate litigation against the federal government by attorneys general.
“Massachusetts has punched above its weight on these cases,” said Nolette, adding that Healey’s office has been a leader especially on environmental issues and education policy.
Healey’s near-constant legal sparring with the federal government set her apart from past Massachusetts attorneys general, including her predecessor, Martha Coakley, who sued the federal government only about a dozen times in her eight years in office.
But Healey, in an interview with the Globe, said she and her compatriots in other states had no choice but to step up as the Trump administration rolled back protections for the environment, immigrants, workers, and more.
“It was absolutely essential that AGs like myself and others across the country were there to hold the line to protect our residents, to protect our businesses, to protect and defend the rule of law during the Trump years,” she said.
Her two Republican rivals for governor this fall charge that Healey politicized her office and diverted resources from state issues to launch partisan attacks on Trump. Geoff Diehl accused Healey of “shamelessly abusing the power of the office for her own political gain and wasting countless taxpayer dollars.”
But in a state where Democrat Joe Biden defeated Trump by 33 points in 2020, it’s unlikely that there’s a political price to pay for attacking the former president, especially when the strategy largely worked.
A Globe analysis shows that the lawsuits led or joined by Healey succeeded about 77 percent of the time, either with a clear-cut court ruling or an order suspending the Trump initiatives, buying time until the Biden administration rescinded or reconsidered the policies. Many cases are still pending. As a result, existing federal health care, social services, and environmental protections remained intact.
Former Maine attorney general James Tierney, now a Harvard Law lecturer, said the strategy of suing the federal government can have a big payoff for the states. It’s much easier, after all, to sue to prevent policy changes than to pass new laws through Congress.
“You get a big bang for your buck,” said Tierney, a Democrat. “You can stop something bad happening or bring money into your state. You can get huge payback.”
Healey’s office contends that the lawsuits against Trump have brought in billions of dollars in payments and savings to the state through student loan forgiveness, reduced health care costs, federal census dollars, and more. In addition, Healey officials say, some of the victories protect residents’ quality of life — especially the environmental wins.
Trump had been president for exactly one week when he issued what became known as the “Muslim ban” on Jan. 27, 2017, which, in addition to sweeping nationwide impacts, would have barred thousands of foreign students and teachers from coming to Massachusetts from Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, or Syria.
Immigration lawyer Susan Church was at Logan International Airport when the ban took effect.
“We didn’t think Boston border officers would enforce the rule. Not our nice Boston officers, but sure enough they were,” said Church. Healey “was probably the first politician I saw at the airport. She was there and said to us, ‘Anything you need.’”
“It was one of the first times I felt a politician was proactively trying to protect immigrants,” Church said.
Massachusetts became one of the first states in the country to challenge the ban when Healey joined a federal lawsuit filed in Boston by two University of Massachusetts Dartmouth professors from Iran who were detained and questioned at the airport.
Federal appeals courts blocked the ban from taking affect. In June, the Supreme Court upheld a third version of the ban that applies to travelers from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea and some officials from Venezuela.
Healey was a plaintiff in 96 federal suits brought against the Trump administration between January 2017 and March 2021, including a flurry that were filed in the first few months after Trump left office challenging actions taken during his tenure, according to a Globe review of court filings. Sixty percent of those suits were related to environmental policies.
Only a few cases were filed by Healey alone. One of those successfully overturned restrictions on colleges that made some students ineligible for pandemic-related grants. In another case, a federal judge ordered the Department of Education to cancel the student loan debt of more than 7,200 Massachusetts students who attended Everest Institute, part of Corinthian Colleges’ defunct national chain of for-profit schools.
Most were filed by a coalition of Democratic attorneys general against myriad Trump policies: drilling for oil in an Alaskan wildlife refuge, separating immigrant families at the Mexican border, granting religious exemptions to employers who objected to providing health insurance coverage for contraceptives, cuts to the food assistance program, and lowering standards aimed at reducing pollution and protecting wildlife.
And while it would seem that multistate litigation would require a vast investment of time and resources, the opposite is true, according to experts.
The cases don’t involve drawn-out court proceedings, with years of filings, depositions, and motions, experts said. Prosecutors with expertise in specific areas draft the lawsuit and the others simply add their names.
Indeed, Republican attorneys general are going to court to block Biden administration policies much the way the Democrats sued Trump. Last month, 22 attorneys generals sued, arguing that the Biden administration is using federal funding for meals to illegally force schools into complying with the federal government’s antidiscrimination policies.
Healey said it “saddened me greatly” to have to sue Trump.
“We had a president who was time and time again doing things that were illegal, unlawful, unconstitutional, and harmful to residents in our state,” she said.
But Healey’s two Republican opponents for governor say she should have stuck to more traditional law enforcement focuses like crime.
“The taxpayers of Massachusetts deserve results, not headline-grabbing lawsuits,” said Chris Doughty, Healey’s second Republican rival. “Healey and Diehl have both been more concerned with national political agendas than putting Massachusetts first.”
Added Diehl, “She thinks the people of Massachusetts owe her a promotion to become governor, but really it’s Maura Healey who owes the people of Massachusetts an apology” for politicizing the state’s chief law enforcement job.
Massive multistate lawsuits against the federal government date back to the 1980s, when attorneys general sued President Reagan over acid rain. While these lawsuits were once a bipartisan effort, they’ve grown increasingly partisan, said Nolette. Cases increased as Republicans sued the Obama administration, then reached record numbers as Democrats sued Trump.
“It makes it difficult for a president to do anything,” Nolette said. “It just forces all of these important issues, dealing with everything from immigration to abortion and civil rights, into the courts.”
Healey said her decisions are based on “the law and what was in the best interest of people in Massachusetts. Full stop.” She not only would sue a Democratic administration, but she has, she said.
One of her first cases while an assistant attorney general in the office in 2009 was to sue the Obama administration over the Defense of Marriage Act, which limited federal benefits for same-sex couples. Later, as attorney general, she challenged the Obama administration’s policies on for-profit schools and environmental protections.
She said her office recently agreed to support a lawsuit filed against the Biden administration challenging its treatment of thousands of Haitian refugees seeking aid along the southern border.
Scott Harshbarger, who served as attorney general from 1991 to 1999, said Healey is doing what she should: “defending the issues of Massachusetts whenever possible, taking on the federal government or national corporations” when necessary.
“Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, that was the tradition established by the” attorneys general long before today’s polarized era, he said.