Attorney General addresses state, federal issues during talk at Rider University

State Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal spoke at Rider University on Oct. 29. (Photo by Philip Sean Curran)PHOTO BY PHILIP SEAN CURRAN
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State Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal spoke at Rider University on Oct. 29. (Photo by Philip Sean Curran)PHOTO BY PHILIP SEAN CURRAN

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said on Oct. 29 that his office is not shying away from challenging actions by the Trump administration and that it intends to have a more assertive role in 2019.

“I didn’t come into this job anticipating I would be suing the federal government at every turn or writing letters demanding that they follow their own rules,” Grewal said during an appearance at Rider University, Lawrenceville. “We’ll step up whenever the federal government violates the laws and when it affects New Jerseyans.”

Since taking office in mid-January, Grewal has fought the Trump administration on its travel ban, joined other states in suing over border enforcement tactics and battled off-shore drilling, among other things.

He named as the head of his office’s civil rights division a former American Civil Liberties Union attorney who had been involved in a Colorado case involving a baker who refused to make a cake for a same sex couple’s wedding.

More broadly, Grewal said the Attorney General’s office of 8,000 people and 13 divisions had never done “affirmative litigation” before. Looking to next year, he said, “we’re going to start using that office to really push forward an affirmative agenda.”

“Because it’s not going to be just about pushing back,” he said. “We’re going to use our division of civil rights. We have rule-making authority. We have the rule against discrimination to really stand up and fill in where the federal government is standing down.”

He said where the federal government is not standing up for “students against for-profit colleges and universities, well, we’ll use our tools there to bring forward more consumer protections for New Jerseyans.”

Grewal avoided giving his view of whether New Jersey should legalize marijuana, leaving it up to Gov. Phil Murphy and state lawmakers. He offered if the state legalizes the drug, then it must “figure out a way to go back to deal with the prior convictions of individuals for similar crimes.”

He said that in 2017, there were 2,750 overdose deaths in New Jersey, most of which were heroin and opioid related. He said 2018 will be worse, with more than 3,000 people dying. He said that total does not give the whole picture, given the people who were saved through the administration of Narcan, which reverses an overdose.

“This is like no other issue we have dealt with in law enforcement before,” he said.

Grewal said that in his days as the Bergen County prosecutor, law enforcement would, on drug sweeps, offer treatment to people who would be arrested. He sought to replicate that earlier this year, in June, in five counties. Of 177 people arrested, some 140 of them took up law enforcement personnel on their offer of a treatment option.

In his remarks, Grewal did not address the #metoo movement going on around the country or the case of a state employee claiming she was sexually assaulted last year by a former staffer for Murphy’s gubernatorial campaign. The man later got a state job that he resigned from in October. The case has brought new scrutiny on the Murphy administration and sex assault cases in the state.

But Grewal touched on the past “week of terror” that began with apparent pipe bombs being mailed to politicians and others, and ended with a mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Oct. 27.

Grewal, 46, was chosen by Murphy to become the state’s 61st Attorney General, the first Sikh to ever hold that position. He took office in January.

“I would never have imagined as a kid that I could become the Attorney General looking the way I do and believing the way I do and just maintaining my religious identity,” he said.

He said that as Attorney General, he is trying to make sure law enforcement “reflects the diversity of the communities we serve, because once we understand our communities, we can serve our communities better, we can understand their needs better and we can meet their needs better.”

At the same time, he said the diversity in the state’s judiciary is “horrible.”

“The numbers are just not at all reflective of the diversity of this state,” he said. “And in this moment, when we have folks turning to the courts to protect their rights when it comes to mass deportations or when it comes to any sort of other civil rights type issues, it helps if that bench looks like them.”

Earlier this year, Grewal was ridiculed as “turban man” by two hosts on WKXW-FM, 101.5, in an incident he addressed in his talk.

“What’s most offensive to me was not the personal effect on me, but, again, it goes back to reducing me and everyone who shares my faith to the most visible article of our faith,” he said. “And so, my thought process was that this is not about me. It’s about this political moment. It’s about taking a stand to call out people who engage in this type of conduct.”