Jul 31, 2019 - Politics & Policy

Democratic state AGs are leading the Resistance

An illustration with a yellow background a a green U.S. map with fists holding gavels sticking out of the map.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

State attorneys general have become some of the most powerful forces fighting the Trump White House — pushing back against its agenda on hot topics like immigration, energy, health care and more.

Why it matters: With little legislative action happening in Congress, the executive branch has taken into its own hands implementing the White House agenda. Those efforts have been increasingly challenged by attorneys general — usually Democrats — and some have been blocked by the courts.

Immigration and social policy: California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has been a major player in states' fights against President Trump's policies. He has sued the Trump administration 50 times — often over Trump efforts to overhaul immigration policies.

  • A federal court ruled in favor of California to protect DACA recipients from deportation last year, despite then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions' efforts to end the program.
  • New York and 14 other states joined California in suing the administration over Trump's national emergency declaration at the border earlier this year. Last week, the Supreme Court lifted an injunction by a lower federal court in a similar lawsuit.
  • Becerra has sued over the border wall construction, the travel ban and the citizenship question on the Census.
  • California also managed to get an injunction on Trump's ban of transgender people serving in the military. But the injunction was lifted by the Supreme Court.

Energy and climate: There's an epic legal fight happen between California and the Trump administration over auto pollution and mileage rules, per Axios' energy reporter Ben Geman.

  • Several state attorneys general have used the courts to push back against Trump’s efforts to scuttle Obama-era environmental and climate policies. And they’ve had some successes, including hindering attempts to repeal regulation of the potent greenhouse gas methane.
  • A huge battle looms over auto emissions and mileage rules. California is preparing to fight pending administration plans to weaken Obama’s standards, and it will resist the administration's efforts to yank California’s special powers under the Clean Air Act to set tailpipe emissions rules. Roughly a dozen other states follow those standards.

Health care: Blue state attorneys general stepped in defend the Affordable Care Act against a a lawsuit by red state attorneys general when the Trump administration said it would no longer defend the law, per Axios health care reporter Caitlin Owens.

  • And in January, a federal court blocked the administration efforts to limit women's access to free birth control in a lawsuit brought by Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Media and technology: Ten Democratic state attorneys general are currently suing to block a T-Mobile-Sprint merger, which the Justice Department approved last week.

  • While there's no direct evidence that the Trump administration wanted approval of the deal for political reasons, there has been a concern among policymakers that the Justice Department is politically charged to do what White House wants when it comes to media mergers.
  • That concern was heightened when The Washington Post reported earlier this year that T-Mobile executives booked at least 52 nights at Trump’s Washington D.C. hotel since announcing the merger.
  • Trump publicly disapproved of a merger between AT&T and Time Warner last summer, which led to a failed DOJ lawsuit.
  • At the time, nine state attorneys general, mostly Republicans and some Democrats, filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit backing AT&T and arguing that the DOJ's case for blocking the deal was weak.

Trump business: Meanwhile, New York Attorney General Letitia James has issued subpoenas, launched investigations and sued Trump businesses. New York has joined 51 lawsuits against the administration, and led 26 of them, the Guardian reported earlier this year.

What to watch: There are 10 attorney general seats on the ballot in 2020. With attorneys general playing a bigger role in national politics and policy, those races could matter more than ever.

The other side: The Obama administration also faced a flurry of lawsuits from state attorneys general, particularly over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. This time, the attorneys general are trying not just to knock down the current administration's policies, but to defend the previous administration's legacy, especially on health care and the environment.

The bottom line: With two branches of the U.S. government embroiled in political stalemate and dysfunction, the courts — and the attorneys general — could have a bigger hand in determining what moves forward.

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