National News

After Schneiderman’s Fall, It’s Business as Usual in Albany

Posted May 9, 2018 12:50 a.m. EDT

Position open: New York state attorney general.

Qualifications: Resident of New York. Law degree from somewhere. Ability to open space on a political chess board.

Other: Abstemiousness would probably be OK. Legal superstars need not apply.

Until Monday night, Eric T. Schneiderman enjoyed fame outside a small corner of New York politics entirely because of the belief, or hope, or fantasy, that in his job as the state attorney general, he might be able to prosecute people pardoned by President Donald Trump.

For virtually any reason, a president can grant clemency to people charged with breaking federal laws — but not for state crimes.

So it has seemed that Schneiderman, or his state office, possessed legal kryptonite that would stop scheming by the White House to avoid the snares of the special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, whose authority is over federal crimes.

Whether any reality underpinned that notion, it turns out that Schneiderman was seen by some of his romantic partners as entirely the opposite of a superhero. Four women told The New Yorker that he was violent with them, that he knocked back wine by the bottle and mooched Xanax.

That was the political end of him. Now the state Legislature could pick a replacement, with the Democrats in the Assembly holding most of the power. They could also decide to not choose anyone, permitting the ranking member of the attorney general’s office to hold the position until an election in the fall.

The person they choose will, in theory, hold the most important state legal job in the country, or at least that was the image Schneiderman encouraged. Last month, he proposed changes to New York law that would allow him to prosecute people pardoned by the president without running into the state’s prohibitions against double jeopardy — that is, trying someone twice for essentially the same crime. Schneiderman’s announcement gave him a few days basking in the progressive sunlight, but such a fundamental change would have to survive review by the courts.

If Schneiderman was indeed as violent and given to excesses with alcohol as described by the women quoted in The New Yorker article, then it’s good that he was not tested in the role of legal backstop to the special prosecutor. There are already enough New Yorkers in the national political arena — Trump and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to take just two — who have made spectacles of themselves.

Before this, Schneiderman had seemed to avoid the river of sleaze that runs alongside the Hudson in Albany. Corruption charges have brought down the leaders of the Assembly and the Senate, Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, and other members of those bodies; sexual misbehavior felled Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Rep. Anthony D. Weiner; and another prominent official in Albany has been accused of sexual misconduct, along with at least a dozen other legislators.

In any case, there is no sign, so far, that legislators believe they are picking an avenging angel for the nation. For that matter, no one seems terribly worried about even finding a lawyer who has experience prosecuting cases or litigating civil actions on behalf of the public and government agencies.

During discussions on Tuesday for Schneiderman’s replacements, several members said, the main consideration was finding political advantage for upcoming local elections.

If the city’s public advocate is given the state attorney general job, she probably wouldn’t run for mayor in 2021. That makes it possible for the Bronx borough president to have a clear shot, although it might make it easier for the Brooklyn borough president to mount a challenge.

Then there is a Democratic congresswoman from Long Island, who would enjoy support from a Republican lobbying firm and probably from the governor. Would that be good for the speaker of the Assembly?

Finally, there is the option for the legislators to kick the can down the road and not name anyone to the top job and simply wait for the voters to decide in the fall. Someone picked by the legislature could be tainted, considering the general bad odor in Albany, and have a hard time winning a primary in September. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo might not like a ballot that includes a wide-open, potentially raucous primary for attorney general, with no incumbent: the more placid a primary, the thinking goes, the better for officeholders like the governor.

One name that has made some fanciful lists of successors is Preet Bharara, the former senior federal prosecutor in New York City, who was fired by Trump last year. Even if the legislators were looking for someone to bring a terrible swift sword to the attorney general’s office, it would not be Bharara. He brought charges against many state elected officials and routinely heaped brimstone of contempt on them.

There may be a few sadists floating around Albany, but Bharara’s appointment would require a full caucus of masochists.