This Op-Ed by Nicole Malliotakis originally appeared in NY Daily News
The sudden and shocking resignation of state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has brought to light the archaic legal guidelines for replacing the Empire State’s chief law enforcement officer or its controller if the elected official resigns or dies while in office.
Under the current law, the governor appoints an acting attorney general until such time as the state legislature meets and votes on a candidate to fill out the term.
In a state with a seemingly endless number of ethically challenged elected officials, this is a recipe for civic disaster. Do we really want an attorney general who is beholden to the leadership of the state Senate and Assembly, especially when you consider that in recent years the leaders of both legislative bodies have been indicted on corruption charges?
Within hours after Schneiderman’s resignation, the backroom dealmaking had begun to see who could line up the necessary number of votes in the legislature to become the new attorney general. It now appears that New York City Public Advocate Letitia James is the frontrunner.
Both the attorney general and controller are supposed to be independent and, among their responsibilities, serve as checks and balances on other parts of the government. But how can they be truly independent if their heads are selected by members of the state legislature, with particular influence from the Assembly speaker?
That’s why I’m introducing legislation that would take the selection process out of the hands of the politicians and put it in the hands of the voters, as it should be in a democracy.
Under my legislation, the governor would have 60 days from the date the vacancy occurred to call a Special Election, which would take place in a 45-60 day window. If the vacancy occurred in the same calendar year as that office’s regular election — as it does this year — the solicitor general would be named attorney general (or the in case of the comptroller, the first deputy comptroller) until the November general election picks a replacement.
Under this system, the usual primary process would take place to select the party nominees for the general election in November. Additionally, this would prevent the unfair advantage of an acting attorney general or controller running for election while already holding the job title.
New Yorkers have every reason to be cynical about how state government operates; the “old-boy network,” backroom budget deals and the cloud of corruption that hangs over Albany have made them that way.
Think about it; over the past dozen years, a governor and an attorney general have resigned over sex scandals, a controller was convicted on corruption charges surrounding a “pay-to-play” scheme regarding the state Pension Fund and two Senate leaders and one speaker of the assembly have been indicted on corruption charges.
That’s not even taking into account the cavalcade of legislators who have either resigned due to a scandal or been indicted or convicted for some form of corruption or malfeasance.
I doubt any state in the nation can rival this dubious record; it alone is a good reason to remove the Legislature from the process.
The path to reform won’t be easy, but a potentially good start will be squandered if the Legislature acts to install an interim attorney general and doesn’t let Acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood, the accomplished solicitor general who is now serving in Schneiderman’s role, to complete his term.
Let the people select the next attorney general this November. And if this ever happens again, make sure the power to choose is in their hands, not the hands of Albany insiders.