As Democrats steel themselves for the day next month when the White House door will slam on their backs, some of the country’s more liberal state attorneys general have vowed to use their power to check and balance Mr. Trump’s Washington.
If the Trump administration withdraws from environmental, antitrust or financial regulations, the attorneys general say they will plug regulatory holes that may gape wide open, deploying state laws like New York’s Martin Act, which allows the state attorney general to pursue wide-ranging investigations on Wall Street.
They have pledged to defend undocumented immigrants, and to combat hate crimes that many believe were unleashed by Mr. Trump’s polarizing campaign.
And if Mr. Trump’s policies veer toward the unconstitutional, several of the 10 current and incoming Democratic attorneys general interviewed recently said they would apply a remedy favored by Mr. Trump himself: a lawsuit.
The strategy could be as simple as mirroring the blueprint laid out by their Republican colleagues, who made something of a legal specialty of tormenting President Obama. Conservative attorneys general in states including Texas, Virginia and Florida have sued the Obama administration dozens of times, systematically battering Mr. Obama’s signature health care, environmental and immigration policies in the courts.
The states’ rights arguments that Republicans have made gospel for nearly eight years — that states must serve as a check against federal overreach — are likely to become convenient for Democrats. So are the legal tactics that Republican attorneys general used to stifle Obama administration programs, including filing lawsuits in front of friendly local judges to win nationwide injunctions against policies they hoped to stop, said Amanda Frost, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.
With Mr. Trump’s ascension, attorneys general of both parties may shuck any remaining veneer of nonpartisanship, even as they continue to wade across party boundaries on investigations involving consumer protection or pharmaceutical pricing.
According to Paul Nolette, a political-science professor at Marquette University, who studies attorneys general, Republican attorneys general filed partisan legal briefs in only five Supreme Court cases during the Clinton administration, a figure that rose to 97 in the first seven years of the Obama administration.
“Things are being driven more by partisan politics,” Mr. Nolette said. “On virtually every hot-button issue you can imagine, A.G.s are signaling where they stand.”