The People’s Lawyer: An Interview with Former IL AG Lisa Madigan

 /  Oct. 9, 2019, 8:01 p.m.

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Lisa Madigan served as Illinois attorney general from 2003 to 2019. She was the first woman elected to the role and became Illinois’ longest serving attorney general. While in office, Madigan gained national attention for her activism, with notable cases on consumer protection, strengthening sexual violence laws, and safeguarding the environment. The Illinois AG office ultimately collected over $14 billion for the state under her tenure. While a fellow at the Institute of Politics, Lisa Madigan sat down with The Gate to discuss her time in office.

The Gate: You were the Illinois attorney general for sixteen years. How have you felt the role of the office and the issues it must tackle change over this time?

Lisa Madigan: At its core it doesn’t. The attorney general has certain responsibilities it must always fulfill. [They are] the lawyer for the state and for the people of the state. What I would say is that I tried to use the power and the authority of the office to do more for people and really embrace the role that attorney generals have as the people’s lawyer. That meant better resourcing the affirmative areas of the office: consumer fraud, healthcare, public integrity, civil rights, workers rights. In that regard, I think we’ve seen a shift.

In addition, for good or for bad, it’s become more political—in part because the most important issues being dealt with at a federal level and at a state level are with rollbacks of progress that had been made, [such as] voter rights, immigration, healthcare, LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, rights that people thought they had secured in this country that are now under attack and are eroded. A lot of states’ attorney generals have stepped up and really put themselves and their offices on the front line in fighting back on behalf of the people.

Gate: You notably focused on consumer protection, being nationally recognized on this front. Can you walk us through your extraordinary focus in this issue that ultimately resulted in the country’s largest and most active consumer protection division?

LM: From the time I got into the office until I left, I put a very significant focus on what is called consumer fraud but I viewed as economic justice issues, whether that be in mortgage lending or student lending, short term loans, or car lending. In each of those areas, we saw a large amount of fraud and discrimination taking place, such that we used the power of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act to hold accountable the lenders and banks on Wall Street. Those issues were obviously heightened around the recession in 2008. As the attorney general, we probably brought more lawsuits against lenders, banks, rating agencies, and investment banks than any other state, [except for maybe] California and New York. We were very active independently, not just in multi-state efforts. So much of attorney general’s role is protecting people’s physical and financial security—that is a priority and that is what people came to us with.

Gate: Among your other key projects were national mortgage cases, discriminatory lending issues, debt relief for students from for-profit colleges, stronger sexual violence laws. Is there one of these cases you would deem the most impactful and successful that you worked on?

LM: They are all important—hopefully when you’ve been in office for sixteen years there is a large list of things that you’ve done to help people. I’m very proud of all of these things. My goal for the office has been that if we have the resources, we want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing for people. You help people in many different ways. It is very satisfying but also very unfortunate that you have to do that sort of work.

Gate: Is there an area of these that you wish you would have been able to tackle or be more impactful on?

LM: The area of student lending. I initiated the investigation into Sallie Mae and Navient. We ultimately filed a lawsuit against them both for improper loan origination and improper loan servicing, but that case had not been finished by the time I left office. Now we have done a lot with making changes with the Department of Education, but with the new administration and Secretary [Betsy] DeVos, they have stopped enforcing a lot of [the reforms] and are changing the rules. It’s very discouraging to see. We have a circumstance right now in this country with students being left with enormous amounts of debt. That’s an area I continue to be concerned about, and I wish that more had been done.

Gate: Is this area of student lending something Attorney General Kwame Raoul should continue to focus on or are there other issues given the obstacles presented by the Trump administration?

LM: I think that every person who serves as attorney general will bring a different expertise and passion to the office. They will also be confronted by different political circumstances, both in the state and nationally. You have to be nimble in that office to address the problems that arise and recognize the circumstances about what could and should be done. I have full confidence that AG Raoul will do a very good job. There are things that he has committed to continuing that I have started and there are things that he is going to do [in the future] that haven’t even arisen as a problem [yet]. I have complete confidence in the office.

Gate: What role do you think states, specifically attorney general offices, can play when national policies might lag behind, such as the US decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement?

LM: Well what we did, on behalf of the state of Illinois, was sign onto the Paris Climate Accord. That’s a perfect example of an area—environmental protection and climate change—where the states have been very active for many years. Back in 2003, when I first became AG, I signed Illinois onto a case called Massachusetts v. the EPA. It was a case that [ruled] that, under the Clean Air Act, the US EPA can and must regulate air emissions. Ultimately that case went to [the Supreme Court], [which] decided that the EPA had to start doing things.

Depending on who the president is, either you have a US EPA head that is committed to the mission of environmental protection or you have somebody who doesn’t—like who we have now. So, the role of the attorney general changes. Sometimes you can be supportive of the administration and sometimes you need to fight back. State AGs have an enormous amount of authority to counteract and stand up to misguided policies coming out of DC.

Gate: Before becoming an attorney, you were a teacher and a community organizer. What led you to decide to become a lawyer? How has this background informed your work as AG?

LM: I grew up around a lot of lawyers, but even more important than that was my time as a teacher in South Africa in the late 1980s. It was a time when apartheid was still in place, Nelson Mandela was in prision, the press was censored. I was teaching a group of Zulu girls in high school. Seeing what was going on in that country politically and how that was affecting my students and their families personally led me to want to do more and certainly pursue social justice issues—which I did when I returned to Chicago, in the Far West Side in the Austin community, working with students to keep them involved in their education and out of the criminal justice system. Working in South Africa and the West Side of Chicago is what really led me to law school so that I could help people and purse civil rights and social justice.

Gate: In a NBC5 interview, you said that being an attorney general was likely the best job you’ll ever have. Why did you decide to not seek re-election?

LM: Look, I’ve been in elected office for 20 years, which I think is a long time for anybody. While I loved it, I’m ready to do something different. Life is short and there are so many ways to help, as I’ve learned throughout my life. There’s direct service, elected office, and a thousand things in between. I just want to try something new.

Claire Cappaert

Claire Cappaert is a 4th year from Des Moines, Iowa majoring in Public Policy and Russian & East European Studies. This is her third year as the interviews editor for The Gate. In her free time, she enjoys spending time at the lake, drinking coffee, and watching the Chicago Bears.

Jessica Davalos


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