AG Healey Spells out Priorities at Council

She was a member of the BBA Council from 2012 to 2015 and also sat on the Executive Committee.

She co-chaired our Civil Rights & Civil Liberties Section.

Two years ago, she was the keynote speaker at the BBA’s Law Day Dinner, where she spoke warmly of having “grown up” professionally through her BBA involvement, attributing many of her core values to what she learned as a member.

And this past week, Maura Healey returned to the Council as the state’s Attorney General, having been elected to that office, after nearly seven years on AGO staff, in 2014.

Since she took over what she calls The People’s Law Firm, her office has successfully rolled out several major policy initiatives, including the Earned Sick Time law and the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.  She also helped shape the Transgender Rights, Pay Equity, and Pregnant Workers Fairness bills.  And on that last issue, she has led by example—providing six weeks of paid family leave for all employees, making the AG’s Office the first state agency to offer paid parental leave.

The AG spoke to Council members at length on Tuesday about her priorities and the work of the Office, but she started by stating that, given the great uncertainties about what it is to come politically, there has never been a more important time in this country for the role of lawyers, or for the rule of law.

In that assessment, she sees a role for the private bar especially.  AG Healey cited a hotline she established in November, for people to use in reporting acts of hatred and bias, and she thanked BBA President Carol Starkey for offering to help in lining up volunteers to handle any cases that emerge.

In addition, we are also partnering with the Attorney General, as well as legal services organizations, to identify other emerging legal needs in the community, particularly as they pertain to the increase in concerns surrounding immigration.  The AG’s office continues to monitor developments in federal immigration policy, to determine what impact they may have on Massachusetts residents.

In the AG’s view, this is part of what it means to run The People’s Law Firm: standing with those who are marginalized or have limited means.  She sees her office as a problem-solver.  Sometimes those problems can best be addressed through litigation; other times, leveraging the expertise and the resources of her office can produce a resolution without going to court.

Another area where we are working from the same playbook as the AG is criminal-justice reform.  She told the Council that policy-makers need to “lean in”, seizing this moment to produce change that goes beyond what has been recommended by the Council of State Governments group that has been studying the issue the past year.

She specifically cited racial disparities and data collection as areas where greater effort is called for, and she expressed hope that the scope of the debate to come on Beacon Hill this year will extend beyond merely mandatory minimums—which the BBA has long opposed.  This would include keeping people out of prisons and jails where possible—and where not, properly treating those who are incarcerated and offering them meaningful preparation for re-entry to society.

AG Healey also highlighted some of her other priorities for 2017:

  • Her office has also been conducting workers’-rights clinics for employees who believe they’ve been treated unfairly. She’s especially concerned about immigrants and other vulnerable populations.  To spread awareness of this educational opportunity, her office has been giving notice about the clinics whenever a private right of action is issued in an employment case.
  • The state’s on-going opioid crisis demands attention, and AG Healey has advocated for greater funding and expansion of education and outreach to both parents and children. It has also created a need for more pro-bono representation in guardianship cases—for example, when a grandparent must step in to raise a child.
  • Economic opportunity and security will continue to be a focus of the AG’s Office. She’s particularly concerned about debt-collection cases, and the tremendous number of defaults occurring in District Court, which only causes more problems for debtors down the road, with obtaining housing, employment, and loans.
    • To address the problem, and quell predatory practices, her office has recently begun a pilot program at the Boston Municipal Court—a single session, once a week, where trained attorneys meet with debtors to review cases.
    • Notice is sent to defendants ahead of time, advising them of this opportunity, and already, in just a few months, the program is showing results, with a 50% increase in attendance at hearings (hence, no default) and more than 100 participants having avoided default.

AG Healey also took questions from members, touching on subjects that included:

  • Climate change—she plans to step up, probably alongside colleagues from other states, if she believes the EPA is backing off on its regulatory enforcement. This is an issue she hears about at town-hall meetings around the state, and one in which she feels a moral obligation to confront potential economic consequences.
  • Acting in concert with other AG’s—again, in response to any regulatory retrenchment in a variety of other areas. She sees these offices as the first line of defense against such roll-backs, as well as potential unconstitutional practices.  She described waking up every day and asking whether her office has standing to intervene in such instances.  Witnessing what she described as voter suppression in other states (though not here) has her wondering whether her office can help.

Along the way, the AG took pains to credit her staff, and she thanked the bar for providing their expertise on issues like the equal-pay law and regulations on earned sick time for employees.

We very much appreciated hearing from Attorney General Healey, and we look forward to next month’s Council meeting, which will feature an appearance by SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants.  Stay tuned…

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association