In many ways, attorneys general from red and blue states could not be further apart. Top state legal officials have aligned in predictable ways around litigation on issues such as climate change, Obamacare, and immigration.
But a recent report has highlighted a surprising undercurrent of bipartisan cooperation. Attorneys general across the ideological spectrum have banded together to secure billions in multistate settlements with companies accused of wrongdoing, including those in the mortgage and pharmaceutical industries.
The findings highlights a trend underlying several recent high-profile cases, according to Philip Mattera, research director for the advocacy organization Good Jobs First, which released the report. The attorneys general of 50 US states and territories are involved in an anti-trust investigation of Google, for instance, and other states have joined together to seek penalties from the makers of addictive opioids.
Mattera said such actions “show the increasing inclination of the states to step in, particularly if they think the federal government is not doing enough.”
Good Jobs First, which has been a vocal critic of corporate subsidies in economic development, found that since 2000, companies have paid out $106 billion in 644 corporate misconduct cases brought by multiple states. Forty or more states cooperated in 172 of those cases, securing $20 billion in penalties.
The numbers are, in part, a reminder that the functions of government continue even in an era when partisan rancor has made seemingly every political function more complicated. For example, Congress so far this year has passed 61 bills that have become law.
But legal observers say attorneys general may face unique pressures to work together, a practice that solidified during the era of state actions against tobacco companies in the 1990s.
One settlement in 1998 brought in $206 billion for 46 states. And over the years, big dollars have continued to flow through the fallout from the Great Recession and into the opioid crisis.
“You don’t want to be the only state that’s not getting tobacco money or opioid money or money from one of these banking settlements,” according to Wendy E. Parmet, a professor of law and public policy at Northeastern University.
“It’s hard to explain to the folks at home: ‘I don’t like to work with them because they’re with another [political] party.’ ”
That doesn’t mean attorneys general are immune from the political winds, she said.
“Things that were routine and bipartisan decades ago are very partisan now,” she said. “It would be foolish to think these things may not influence the abilities of state attorneys general to work across party lines.”
As an example, she pointed to the debate over a proposed multibillion-dollar settlement with Purdue Pharma, which had faced suits from states of all stripes over the toll of the prescription painkiller OxyContin.
Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia rejected the offer by mid-September, arguing it does not go far enough, according to the Associated Press. Nearly all of those jurisdictions, including Massachusetts, have Democratic attorneys general, while many states with Republican attorneys general say they will accept the deal.
In a statement, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said she believes there is still plenty of room for cooperation.
“I’ll continue to work collaboratively with all of my colleagues who share a commitment to protecting consumers, students, and workers,” Healey said.
“There is no place for politics in this critical work for our residents.”
Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A previous version of this story listed an incorrect number of states that rejected a deal with Purdue Pharma.