How Much Law Does Your A.G. Have to Know?

“You probably know; I don’t know. When was the last time Eliot Spitzer was in court in his eight years

You probably know; I don’t know. When was the last time Eliot Spitzer was in court in his eight years [as State Attorney General]? Did he even try one case? When did he even go into court?”

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That was Andrew Cuomo, former Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, erstwhile gubernatorial candidate and the front-runner to take over for Mr. Spitzer when he leaves office—presumably to become the next Governor of New York. He phrased this as a rhetorical question. It wasn’t quite.

“Because he’s really managing, I was told, he never did. But I never posed the specific question. He’s managing a large law firm. He’s got—whatever he has—600 lawyers. At H.U.D., I had about 300 lawyers.”

When was the last time Mr. Cuomo was in court? Or, for that matter, any of the candidates in the race? And—does it really matter?

Of the group of six Democrats and one Republican running for the office, four—Jeanine Pirro, Mark Green, Charlie King and Mr. Cuomo—have all run for offices higher than State Attorney General (and entirely outside the legal profession), leading some to suspect that law serves largely as an instrument in their political careers rather than as a career plan in itself. Only one is presently working at a firm. Two are in real estate. One is already a politician. One runs a think tank. Denise O’Donnell is the most lawyerly, and appeared in court for a federal sentencing as recently as Jan. 6. And the least? Hard to say. Mark Green admits he hasn’t argued a case in court since the 1970’s. Does that seal the deal?

Mr. Cuomo’s career began with a year in the appeals unit of the Manhattan D.A.’s office, and then continued with a stint at politically connected law firm Blutrich, Falcone & Miller as a partner. He left in 1988. That was the last time he recalled appearing.

Of course, there’s a difference: As the Secretary for Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, he managed cases that actually did go to court—even if he didn’t appear himself.

Mr. Spitzer also manages cases—but they seldom get argued in court, by anyone, least of all himself.

Such are the distinctions muddying up the crowded field of the present Attorney General race.

“There are sort of two models for the Attorney General,” said Lloyd Constantine, a Manhattan lawyer who has worked with the past three Attorneys General. “One is: statewide launching pad for a political career. And the other model is: It’s the capstone, the zenith of a legal career. Sometimes you start on one path and you wind up on another path.”

The most powerful lawyers in New York—think David Boies, Marty Lipton—aren’t exactly lining up for the job. And most of the candidates in this field have been showing up in one political race or another for years.

So who are these people? Can the office of the Attorney General, presently held by a man whom some have called the most important politician in the country outside of Washington, really be a consolation prize for politicians with previously higher ambitions? If it’s the “capstone” of a legal career in New York, why don’t more New York lawyers—real lawyers—want the job?

In interviews, each of the seven candidates practically squealed with delight when asked questions about their legal background. Yet many seem to have had very peripheral relationships to the actual practice of law—surfacing to write a brief or appear in court in the interstices of stints as legislators, real-estate developers, garden-variety capitalists, public servants. At the same time, it should be said, the field of law can be a very, very broad category.

Still, legal credentials have become one of the micro-fronts of this campaign, in various forms.

Hank Sheinkopf, the political consultant working for Mark Green, has delivered a variation on this line to more than one paper: “You’ve got Andrew Cuomo, who’s worked in a D.A.’s office, and then you’ve got Mark Green, ‘the people’s lawyer,’” he said.

The slogan for the campaign of Denise O’Donnell, former U.S. Attorney from Buffalo, is “Protecting New Yorkers Is Too Important to Leave to Career Politicians.”

“In terms of politics, legal credentials are only important because it’s called Attorney General,” said Norman Adler, a political consultant who is not working for any statewide candidates but has personally contributed to Richard Brodsky’s campaign. “And the public expects the Attorney General to be a lawyer.”

So what are you guys? Politicians, or lawyers?

Andrew Cuomo

The 48-year-old front-runner was among the more enthusiastic candidates to brandish his credentials for a reporter in a recent telephone interview. He served in the Clinton administration, rising to become the H.U.D. Secretary from 1996 to 2000.

“I don’t recall if I appeared [in court] at H.U.D. It’s one thing going into court; it’s another thing to quote-unquote ‘appear.’ I managed all the cases.”

Was the move to H.U.D. a career change from law to politics?

“I don’t see it as leaving the law,” he said. “It’s how you use the law. At H.U.D., the law was the vehicle. I did 2,000 anti-discrimination cases because you broke the law. I enforced the law. I did hundreds of criminal-fraud cases because you broke the law. I went after bad landlords because they broke the law. I protected the environment because they broke the law. They’re all legal-based. I had nothing but the law.”

Mr. Cuomo was “of counsel” at the law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson for a year and a half, but left to run for Governor—and withdrew. He’s now a partner in a real-estate investment group.

Mark Green

When pushed, Mark Green, 61, admitted that he probably hasn’t been in court since the “the 70’s,” when he was one of Nader’s Raiders. “I’m not a courtroom attorney; I’m a prosecuting attorney,” said Mr. Green, who leads the pack in terms of the number of offices sought: He’s lost races for the House of Representatives, in 1980, to S. William Green; for the U.S. Senate, in 1986, to Alfonse D’Amato; and for Mayor of New York, in 2001, to Michael Bloomberg.

Mr. Green said that his time as Consumer Affairs Commissioner—though he called the post “Consumer Fraud Prosecutor”—and as Public Advocate were his experiences most relevant to the Attorney General position.

As Public Advocate, he won face-offs with Mayor Giuliani in court over the right to review the NYPD’s record on punishing officers accused of racial profiling and misconduct, and barring Mr. Giuliani from disclosing sealed juvenile records, as he did in the case of Patrick Dorismond. (Mr. Giuliani appealed the latter ruling, but then left office.)

Currently, he runs a think tank called the New Democracy Project.

“I have years of experience shaping and bringing cases on behalf of the government, though others would argue them in court, which is what Attorneys General do,” insisted Mr. Green (point added for perfect grammar). “I focused on shaping and initiating law-reform lawsuits rather than staying up all night because I’m standing in court.”

Big-time lawyers, he pointed out, are rooting for him. “David Boies, perhaps the leading lawyer in America, said that Mark Green was born for the job of Attorney General. So I’m running based on record and merit and nothing else,” he said.

Denise O’Donnell

After a brief interview, Ms. O’Donnell, 58, called back to confirm her last court date: Jan. 6, 2006, for a sentencing in a case in Federal District Court.

Ms. O’Donnell is a partner in Hodgson, Russ, a general-practice firm. She spent 17 years at the U.S. Attorney’s office, including four as the top lawyer.

“I’m the only professional prosecutor running on the Democratic side,” she said.

“I really think it’s critical that the Attorney General has a background and experience as a lawyer and prosecutor.”

Her legal chops unimpeachable, Ms. O’Donnell’s candidacy will test whether voters agree—or care.

“Why don’t more people run? You know, I think it’s very demanding to run for public office,” she said. “You spend a lot of your time raising money, and that is not fun …. Since November, I’ve really cut back on my law practice.”

Ms. O’Donnell was asked whether she thought Mr. Spitzer’s skills were legal or political.

“I think it’s hard to look at Eliot Spitzer and have people think of it as a political job. He’s been really practicing law, and he’s attracted the best and brightest lawyers to make significant cases.”

Richard Brodsky

Richard Brodsky, 59, has served in the State Assembly for over 20 years. Yet he’s also kept one foot outside of the lawmaking coliseum, taking trial and appellate work first on a pro bono basis and more recently in private practice.

“I am a practicing lawyer with enormous direct experience in applying the law-courtroom situation to the lives of people across the state—and I win. I’m going to give you a list of some of the cases I’ve brought as a lawyer. I want to emphasize this is not me being a plaintiff—I write the papers and I argue the cases, O.K.?”

He argued before the Appellate Division on behalf of the Working Families Party about three weeks ago in a case centered on the First Amendment rights of minor political parties.

Since 1995, he said, he’s had “close to 30 administrative and courtroom appearances on behalf of the people of the state.”

“I tend to do what I would call almost a barrister type of thing. I worked with other lawyers and do the oral arguments myself …. You ever see Rumpole [of the Bailey]? Rumpole was a barrister.

“I don’t know that Mark Green has ever argued a case,” Mr. Brodsky said, with some satisfaction. “I don’t know if Andrew has since his days as an A.D.A. 106 years ago. The kind of cases I’ve been bringing and winning are exactly the kind of cases brought by an Attorney General.”

Charlie King

Like Mr. Cuomo, his running mate in 2001, Charlie King currently works in real estate and has for nearly three years, as the C.E.O. of a nonprofit housing organization. He spent about 12 years at Fried, Frank—where he headed the firm’s pro bono effort—and worked as a lawyer for the criminal-justice committee of the State Assembly.

“I’ve never really left law, I would say. The majority of my professional career has been in the practice of law. I’ve never really left it. I’ve left it for bits and pieces,” he said.

The last time he was in court was in 2003, when, as a freelance advocate, he brought the first of three class-action lawsuits on behalf of 4,000 New York City public-school students who had been denied the right to transfer from failing schools under the No Child Left Behind Act. The city settled a successor suit last year.

“It absolutely matters what your record has been as a lawyer,” Mr. King said when asked about the relevance of a legal record to the Attorney General’s job. “How much time have you devoted in your career to being a lawyer? There are not many candidates who have devoted the type of time to being a lawyer as I have.”

Mr. King, 46, has run for Lieutenant Governor twice.

“When I’ve run before, I’ve run for positions where I thought I could make a difference, and positions that were open …. You couldn’t run for Attorney General because Eliot Spitzer was there, and he was doing a hell of a job,” he said. “My career has been at the intersection of law and politics.”

Sean Patrick Maloney

In a nod to the kind of national prominence that Mr. Spitzer has shown the Attorney General position can deliver, Sean Patrick Maloney, 39, recently took to the airwaves to say that he would call for a federal court order to end the wiretapping by the Bush administration. (“I don’t know that [former Attorney General] Louis Lefkowitz would have done that,” quipped Bob Ward, a longtime Albany observer who directs research at the Business Council.)

Until he took a leave of absence this fall to pursue the A.G.’s office, Mr. Maloney was an associate at the law firm of Willkie, Farr & Gallagher, home to the father of one of his Democratic rivals, former Governor Mario Cuomo. He began his career there and took off three years to work in the Clinton administration, eventually rising to serve as staff secretary.

“I had Harriet Miers’ job,” he reminded The Observer. “I used to think I was being ambitious running for Attorney General, until Harriet Miers got nominated for the Supreme Court—then I wondered whether I was being ambitious enough.”

At Willkie, he specialized in internal investigations.

“It’s very much a combination of litigation, corporate work and legal investigatory work,” said Mr. Maloney. “It’s real lawyer’s work …. It’s hands-on stuff.”

The last time he appeared in court was before he went to work in the White House in 1997, he said. He argued some motions on various cases as a junior associate and won political asylum for Carlos Kellner, a Honduran labor leader.

Jeanine Pirro

Finally, on the Republican side, there is Jeanine Pirro—whose false starts on her quest for higher office have become legendary. Ms. Pirro, 54, could not pin down how many cases she tried as an assistant district attorney.

“As an assistant D.A., I tried murders, rapes and violent felonies. I tried murders, rapes and violent felonies for years. Child abuse, homicides, scaldings, murders, rape, you know: violent felonies. I even tried some burglaries. You name it, I’ve tried it … drunk-driving cases,” said Ms. Pirro.

She went on to describe her work as the Westchester D.A. for the past 12 years. “Most recently, running an office of 120 prosecutors, I spent a great deal of time in court monitoring prosecutors trying cases, going to court with families of victims, and making sure that strategies were implemented in trials by the assistant D.A.’s in my office.”

Ms. Pirro disputed the characterization of her as desperately seeking higher office. “I disagree with that totally, and I’ll tell you why: I’m the only candidate who has been in law enforcement for 30 years and who is running for the chief law-enforcement job in the state. This is not about politics; this is a continuation of my life’s work. I’m not running from one office to the next. I have done basically one thing for 30 years, and I am looking to continue.”

How Much Law Does  Your A.G. Have to Know?