Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen ’80 sat down with Harvard Law School students to discuss challenges they face in office.
Coakley and Jepsen shared their experiences working with the governor’s office, state legislators and the federal government in a panel discussion on Monday, March 28, 2011, moderated by Harvard Law School lecturer and former Maine Attorney General Jim Tierney.
Jepsen described the scope and frequency of issues his office deals with on a daily basis, ranging from environmental policy to health care to the financial services industry.
“It’s like a conveyor belt that keeps sending you issues,” Jepsen said. “You have to make decisions and choices that really affect people’s lives.”
Unlike the United States Attorney General, the majority of state attorneys general are elected rather than appointed, and both Coakley and Jepsen stressed the importance of developing a cooperative relationship with the governor while maintaining their office’s independence.
“Even if the governor asks me to do something, I have an independent obligation to determine that it’s in the best interest of the public,” Coakley said.
Jepsen, a former state senate majority leader, also shared his experience working with legislators as Attorney General.
“Legislators want you to certify something so they can walk around with a piece of paper that says the AG agrees with me and try and pull you into issues you don’t want to be involved with,” he said.
Coakley added that her office sometimes steps in to provide legislators with guidance on various issues such as the Massachusetts’ gaming statute proposals.
“My concern was with the law enforcement piece—there are twice as many FBI agents in Las Vegas as there are in any other city,” Coakley said. “If you want to do this, you need to do this safely.”
Both urged students to consider careers in public service, stressing the need for strong leaders at local, state, and federal levels.
“I hope you recognize you bring skills and the ability to problem solve that we unfortunately don’t see enough of,” Coakley said. “If we do not have leaders going forward to identify problems and issues and move that agenda along, we are in trouble.”
Coakley was first elected as attorney general in 2006, and under her leadership, her office led the nation in bringing actions against Wall Street investment giants such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Her office recovered more than $440 million for homeowners and taxpayers, keeping more than 15,000 people in their homes. In 2009, she filed the nation’s first lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which resulted in a federal judge ruling striking down the law.
Coakley also served as Middlesex County District Attorney for eight years, overseeing the prosecution of high-profile cases including the prosecutions of several Catholic priests charged with sexually abusing children. She received her B.A. degree cum laude from Williams College in 1975, and her J.D. from the Boston University School of Law in 1979.
Jepsen, who earned his J.D. degree, cum laude, from Harvard Law School in 1980 and a Master’s in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School in 1982, took office on Jan. 5, 2011. Jepsen was elected state representative in 1987 and then state senator in 1990, representing Stamford and Darien through 2003. He served as Senate Majority Leader from 1997 to 2003 and also chaired the Judiciary Committee and was a ranking member of the Finance Committee. The former Dartmouth College graduate was a candidate for Governor in 2002 and the Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor.