Monday, Sept. 18, former Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring participated in a Dunn lecture event hosted by Sandra Day O’Connor Professor of Law and professor of government Neal E. Devins at the College of William and Mary Law School.
Virginia is one of 43 states that popularly elects its attorney general, who serves as the chief legal officer for the state. In seven states, the attorney general is an appointed position. A Democrat, Herring was first elected in 2013. In 2019, Herring appointed the University Council Carrie Nee.
During the talk, Herring detailed his experience as Virginia attorney general, as well as attempts to remove him from the position, which began during the first month of his tenure.
As the state’s chief legal officer, Herring laid out his vision on the role of the job.
“I think part of the job is to provide good, objective, timely legal advice,” Herring said. “Every department, agency, board, commission, a public college or university in the state, almost all have some criminal jurisdiction, especially in criminal appeals. They all handle civil litigation in a very centralized fashion where the state, they represent the public interest in a kind of a public advocacy role. Remember, going back to tradition of independence, being the guardians of the public interest.”
Herring then shared some of his accomplishments in office, including civil rights issues. He spoke about one of his earliest cases as attorney general, where he opposed Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage.
“I’m trying to analyze this as an attorney general, and here were some of those considerations,” Herring said. “First, it was a fundamental right, the right to marry. It impacts a lot of people. That’s number one. Number two, I strongly felt Virginia needed a course correction. We had lost so many landmark civil rights cases. I was like, ‘We are not making this mistake.’”
“It was time to show Virginia, Virginians and the rest of the country that we were on the right side of this civil rights issue,” Herring said. “We were going to take up the side of the plaintiffs and stop fighting against people’s rights and start fighting for them.”
In Bostic v. Rainey, the case resulted in a victory for the plaintiffs, who were married same-sex couples. The ruling was further upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“It was time to show Virginia, Virginians and the rest of the country that we were on the right side of this civil rights issue,” Herring said. “ We were going to take up the side of the plaintiffs and stop fighting against people’s rights and start fighting for them.”
At the time, then-governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, supported Herring’s decision.
“So that’s what we did, not without a fair amount of blowback, an attempt by the state bar to disbar me, others to impeach me,” Herring said. “But the response, while they’re from a predictable corner, happened, but so many other people, the support was amazing.”
Herring also detailed his efforts in securing in-state college tuition rates for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to avoid deportation and be eligible for a work permit.
“I knew kids who were probably undocumented when they were growing up in my community — I coached their soccer teams,” Herring said. “They went to school side by side with my kids, but mine and others had other opportunities and many of them did not. And out-of-state tuition was beyond reach.”
Herring then recalled when a young girl he met at a Virginia Girls State event informed him of her immigration status as a member of the DACA program. She told Herring that she had wanted to attend the University of Virginia but could not have done so without Herring’s work to secure in-state tuition for DACA recipients. Herring said he met the student again years later at UVA.
“Trump was elected in 2016, and at the time he was threatening to eliminate the DACA program,” Herring said. “She asked me and she was like, ‘You’re not going to let that happen, right?’ You know, I’ll do what I can, no guarantees, but it’s the real impact these cases, these principles, have on people’s lives.”
However, Herring’s tenure was riddled with controversy. He resigned as a co-chair of the Democratic Attorneys General Association in 2019 after admitting to wearing blackface to a party while an undergraduate student at UVA. After two terms in office, he lost his bid for a third term in 2021 to Republican Jason Miyares J.D. ’05. McAuliffe, who sought a non-consecutive second term, also lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin HON ’23 in the same year. Herring still said during the event that he enjoyed his experience as Va. attorney general.
“If you’re a lawyer, it is a great job,” he said. “I was fond of telling people at the time that I love public policy, I love practicing law. Most of all, I love helping people. When you’re the attorney general, you get to do all three of those things every minute you’re awake.”
William and Mary law student Margaret Dupree J.D. ’24 noted her appreciation for the event.
“I thought it was good. He clearly has a lot of experience to talk about, and I think taking the time to come talk to our students is really helpful because the current AG, who’s a Republican also went here. So it’s interesting having both perspectives coming to William and Mary and talk to us. And I also think that a lot of us take classes in these subjects. And so it’s great to hear first-hand experience,” Dupree said.
Law student Connor O’Neill J.D. ’25, a Student Assembly senator, also attended the event and shared a similar sentiment.
“He was an interesting individual – the work that occurred during his term of office that he described was quite impressive,” O’Neill wrote in an email to The Flat Hat. “The way he contrasted his efforts with the work of previous AG’s was well framed, he certainly sold the human rights work of his office quite well. I enjoyed the conversation and I was glad to hear from Virginia’s previous AG.”