AG Letitia James steps aside as Gov. Hochul’s counsel in right-to-shelter case

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By Dan Sears

Attorney General Letitia James is no longer representing Gov. Kathy Hochul and other state plaintiffs in New York City’s landmark “right-to-shelter” case, according to court filings made Thursday.

James, the state’s top lawyer and one of its highest-ranking Democrats, is being replaced by Selendy Gay Elsberg PLLC, a private Manhattan-based law firm. The attorney general’s withdrawal was the result of a policy disagreement, according to a source familiar with the decision.

James’ office declined to comment on the swap.

Though the specifics behind the shakeup remain unclear to the public, the appearance of James breaking ranks with the governor has prompted questions about the lines along which they may have diverged. Legal experts have deemed the change unusual, a characterization Hochul rebuffed in comments to reporters on Thursday.

“It’s not uncommon. It’s a regular practice,” Hochul said on Thursday. “I can show you a whole series of cases where the attorney general has not been the attorney of record for the state of New York.”

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The 1981 consent decree stemming from the case in question served as the legal bedrock for New York City’s commitment to give shelter to any person who asks — and the basis for litigation seeking to enforce it. The city’s so-called right-to-shelter rules have come into focus as Mayor Eric Adams sought changes to the decree in May, as migrants needing housing and assistance with other basic needs continue to enter the city in large numbers.

Hochul emphasized that the decree did not apply statewide. The basis of the argument in the original case touched on the state constitution, and Hochul said it was “going to come down to a very sophisticated constitutional question” for which the state brought in outside experts.

Adams has pressed federal and state officials, at times forcefully, for more resources to assist with the inflow of migrants.

The migrant crisis has become a political quagmire for Adams and Democrats at large, who have differing views on how to address the issue. Adams has found himself at odds with county executives north of the five boroughs as his administration has attempted to send migrants elsewhere, only to be met with legal action from those localities.

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“The state has been stepping up in different areas, but there has to be a process to engage the local communities first and to let people know there’s going to be support services for these individuals,” Hochul said on Thursday. “So that’s the genesis of it.”

Jon Campbell contributed reporting.

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