It took only three days for Attorney General Maura Healey to take President Trump to court, filing two legal challenges in January while the nation was still debating the size of the inauguration crowd on the National Mall.
Now, just six months into Trump’s term, Healey has racked up 11 legal cases against the Republican president’s agenda, a pace of nearly one court challenge every two weeks.
The full impact of the legal barrage is not yet clear because most of the lawsuits are pending. But the fusillade is evidence of the increasingly aggressive and, some might say, partisan role that Democratic state attorneys general are taking in the Trump era.
The legal battles could also burnish Healey’s reputation among Democratic voters, who already view her as a rising star and potential candidate for higher office.
“What we’re seeing, and certainly Healey is one of the leaders, is really an escalation of the AGs’ national role,” said Paul Nolette, a Marquette University political scientist who studies the rising influence of state attorneys general in shaping federal policy. “Whether it’s reversing Obama’s regulations or going after something new, like the travel ban, they’re saying, ‘We’re going to be the first line of defense and push back on that.’ ”
Republican attorneys general launched a similar assault on President Obama’s agenda when he was in office, suing him over issues ranging from transgender rights to immigration and health care. But most of those lawsuits didn’t begin until Obama’s second year in office, and the full onslaught didn’t start until his second term, Nolette said.
“What’s new here is just the rapid escalation of all this,” he said. “The Democratic AGs, including Healey, are just jumping right into the fray during the earliest days and months of the administration.”
So far, Healey has filed or joined multistate legal challenges to the Trump administration’s efforts to cut funding for the Affordable Care Act, enact bans on travel from several countries, undo student loan regulations, lessen oversight of for-profit colleges, and loosen environmental rules for oil and gas producers, trucks, electrical appliances, and light bulbs.
She also has also signed another dozen legal briefs, letters, and administrative requests in support of other states’ lawsuits against the travel ban and in opposition to administration policies related to the environment and consumer protection.
Some legal observers contend the growing portfolio of federal court matters could drain attention and resources away from Healey’s traditional duties as attorney general: to defend state agencies in court, issue advisory opinions on legal matters, and prosecute unscrupulous corporations and individuals.
“The question is whether some of these lawsuits are depleting resources that might be used to pursue other important initiatives, especially if other states are challenging Trump and there is no fiscal cost to simply signing onto the briefs of other states,” said Neal E. Devins, a professor at William & Mary Law School.
Healey insisted there is no tension between her federal legal activities and her responsibilities in Massachusetts, saying her battles against Trump are aimed at protecting local interests.
She said, for example, that Trump’s executive orders to ban travel from some Muslim countries would have hurt local universities’ ability to attract top talent, that laxer energy-efficiency standards would undermine the state’s clean-energy sector, and that a delay sought by the US Department of Education in processing federal loan discharges could harm thousands of Massachusetts students. That is why, she said, she took steps to challenge those policies.
“We’ve run headlong into a brick wall when it comes to the Trump administration looking to take away rights and protections and to take us backwards,” said Healey, who was elected in 2014. “That’s why we absolutely have to be there as state AGs. This is our job, and if we don’t do it, the question is: Who will?”
From a legal standpoint, some scholars argue that Healey’s attempts to defend federal regulations are an attempt to bypass Congress and craft national policy — effectively legislating through litigation.
“She’s overstepping her bounds as a state official trying to implement federal policy, and as an executive official trying to usurp federal power,” said John C. Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University in Irvine, Calif. “We’ve got a real separation of powers problem.”
Healey argued, however, that she is acting safely within her authority.
“This is exactly the role of the state attorney general: It’s to enforce the law, to make sure people are complying with the law, and to bring legal action when necessary to protect the interests of our state,” she said.
Previous state attorneys general also sued Republican administrations but not as frequently, said James M. Shannon, who was the Democratic attorney general of Massachusetts during the first Bush presidency.
Shannon attributed the surge in legal cases against Trump to the “extraordinarily aggressive actions he has taken as president — some of it illegal, like the immigration ban.”
“And it’s exacerbated because you don’t have a Congress to stop him,” he said. “So I would say this is the first time we’ve seen the attorney general’s office here, and across the country, really be the front line of opposition.”
Politically, the legal challenges could lift Healey’s standing among Democrats who want her to challenge Republican Charlie Baker in next year’s governor’s race. Healey has said she is running for reelection. But there is precedent elsewhere for her legal strategy leading to higher office.
When he was attorney general of Texas, Republican Greg Abbott boasted of the more than 30 lawsuits he filed against Obama, famously declaring that his job was straightforward: “I go into the office in the morning. I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.” Partly on the strength of that record, Abbott was elected governor of Texas in 2014.
“You can make a name for yourself in a state were the president is unpopular,” said Saikrishna Prakash, a University of Virginia law professor. While other officials can only rail against the federal government, Healey’s lawsuits signal to voters that she’s “taking action,” he said.
Healey dismissed the comparison to Abbott and the implication that her court cases could give her a political boost.
“Greg Abbott was somebody who said his job was to go to work, sue the Obama administration, and go home,” she said. “That is not the job of the attorney general. The job of the attorney general is to enforce the law and to make sure that you’re fighting to protect the interests of the state, within the bounds of the law. And that’s what we’re doing.”Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.