Schneiderman's Successor Adds AG Post to Her Legal Firsts

(Bloomberg) -- Barbara Underwood’s career has been one of firsts: She was first in her law school class and the first woman to serve as U.S. solicitor general, and she is now the first woman to be New York’s attorney general.

Underwood, the state’s solicitor general, takes over as acting attorney general on Tuesday, replacing Eric Schneiderman, who announced his resignation Monday following allegations from four women that he physically abused them.

The 73-year-old Underwood, who is next in line for the job, brings to the office top legal credentials and years of experience as a prosecutor. She’ll stay in place until the state legislature selects Schneiderman’s replacement, who then must prevail in November’s election to retain the post.

A Radcliffe College graduate who was first in her law school class at Georgetown University in 1969, Underwood served as a law clerk for David Bazelon, then chief judge of the federal appeals court in Washington, and went on to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a liberal icon.

Underwood taught law for 10 years at Yale Law School before making the unusual decision to go on leave and work as a trial lawyer for Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. From Yale, she later moved to the Brooklyn DA’s office, where she was chief of appeals and counsel to former DA Elizabeth Holtzman. She was also a top prosecutor in Queens and served as deputy to Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter, supervising 150 lawyers.

“Barbara Underwood is a brilliant lawyer who has devoted her professional life to serving the criminal justice system,” Carter said on Tuesday.

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in 1998 named Underwood as the principal deputy solicitor general, and she was acting solicitor general -- the first woman to hold that position -- during the last six months of her tenure, which ran until June 2001.

Underwood was named New York solicitor general in 2007 -- the state’s top appeals lawyer -- a job she held until Tuesday.

“The work of this office is critically important,” she said in a statement. “Our office has never been stronger, and this extraordinarily talented, dedicated, and tireless team of public servants will ensure that our work continues without interruption.”

Alan Vinegrad, then a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, turned to Underwood for advice as he weighed whether to bring a civil rights case stemming from the stabbing death of a Hasidic scholar during riots in the Crown Heights neighborhood. Underwood’s insights were key as the government advanced an innovative legal theory in its prosecution of an African-American man who’d been acquitted of state murder charges, he said. The man was convicted in 1997, won his appeal, and was convicted again.

"Barbara is one of the smartest lawyers I’ve ever met," said Vinegrad.

Underwood has argued 20 times for the federal and state governments before the U.S. Supreme Court. Some of the cases include:

  • A key dispute over greenhouse gas emissions and climate change: In American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, Underwood argued that electric power utilities violated state tort and public nuisance laws by contributing to global warming. The high court in 2011 rejected the argument, finding that states couldn’t invoke federal laws to force utilities to cut their emissions.
  • A battle to hold national banks accountable for violations of state fair-lending laws: Underwood got a win for former state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo -- now the governor. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 2009 decision authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, partially reversed lower court decisions against New York and found that Cuomo acted properly by issuing subpoenas.
  • A fight to limit lawsuits by prisoners: Underwood lost when she fought on behalf of the state to uphold a law barring prisoners from suing state corrections’ officers for money damages. Although upheld by the state’s highest court, the law was found by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009 to violate the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.
  • An effort to keep campaign finance restrictions: She successfully argued to uphold campaign finance reforms that limited "coordinated" spending. The Supreme Court in 2001 rejected a lower-court decision for the Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee.

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