On Oct. 14, the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship (RIPPAC) hosted a virtual Q&A session between RIPPAC director Benjamin Dworkin and New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.
Held over Cisco WebEx, the conversation touched upon several current issues, beginning with Grewal’s start in law before pivoting to discussions of racial justice, policing, election security, marijuana legalization and more.
Grewal has been a lifelong resident of New Jersey and is now the first Sikh-American to become an attorney general in the United States. Currently, his work involves him overseeing the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety.
One issue that Grewal has had to contend with is systemic racism, which has received recent attention following the police-involved killings of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor, as well as the resulting protests.
“When it comes to the judicial system, what you have to acknowledge is that we do our work here against the backdrop of centuries of racism, from slavery to Jim Crow to mortgage redlining to the the war on drugs, mass incarceration — New Jersey bears the scars of this history like every other state,” Grewal said, “and that history is reflected in our criminal justice system when you look at the realities today that Black New Jerseyans are three times more likely than white New Jerseyans to be prosecuted and arrested for marijuana offenses. They’re more than three times more likely to have force used against them than white New Jerseyans. Black New Jerseyans are 14% of the New Jersey population but 61% of our prison population — and that’s the worst disparity in the country. When you look at our juvenile justice system, the disparities are even greater. So I think we have to acknowledge the reality that these systemic inequities exist.”
Among Grewal’s steps to address these inequities is the state’s Excellence in Policing Initiative, which focuses on three main points: promoting professionalism, transparency and accountability. This has involved reforming use of force policy and training all state troopers and state prosecutors on implicit bias.
To Grewal, though, these steps in police reform are not enough.
“What we truly have to acknowledge if we want to make Black lives matter when it comes to the criminal justice system [is] that we have to do the hard work of making Black lives matter when it comes to housing, when it comes to education, when it comes to the environment, when it comes to healthcare,” Grewal said. “It’s the failures of all those systems that sometimes lay these issues at the feet of law enforcement.”
The New Jersey attorney general’s office has also participated in “dozens and dozens” of lawsuits filed against the Trump administration on the state’s behalf. According to Grewal, this is only when the federal government’s actions have been both unlawful and harmful to New Jersey residents.
“I am not viscerally anti-Trump,” Grewal said, noting that since New Jersey’s attorney general position is not elected, he does not have to campaign on lawsuits against Washington as other states’ attorneys general may.
“We have gotten involved when the administration has illegally rolled back environmental protection. We’ve gotten involved when they’ve attacked our immigrant communities. We’ve gotten involved when they’ve undermined critical healthcare protections under the [Affordable Care Act]. Most recently, we’ve filed and we’ve won a lawsuit against the postmaster general for his actions to slow down the mail, which we thought would threaten our state’s ability to conduct a primarily vote-by-mail election during this pandemic… Our goal has always been to push back against illegal actions by the federal government that affect New Jerseyans, because we want to make New Jersey a better place… but in an ideal world, I would never have to sue the government,” Grewal said.
“Republican attorneys general did the same thing under the Obama administration, but their win percentage was less than 10%. We are winning 70, 80, 90 percent of these cases because they are not following the rules,” Grewal said.
Grewal punted on marijuana legalization, referendum Proposition 1 on the ballot for the 2020 election.
“Legalization is a ballot question now,” he said. “Before it was a question of the legislature. The reason I punt is that if I’m on record saying this law is no good, or this criminal statute should not be abided by, I can’t do that. I can’t have people who are charged with that law out there citing the attorney general that this law shouldn’t be on the book.”
He did note, however, that the state is currently in the process of expunging criminal records for marijuana-related offenses.
According to Grewal, his career began as a “failed writer and failed foreign service officer.”
“Did I want to grow up to be New Jersey’s attorney general? That’s a hard ‘no,'” Grewal said during the event. “I don’t think I ever thought it was possible in the first place for someone like me to achieve this sort of position.”
Following his graduation from Georgetown University, he was unable to find a career and moved back in with his parents, where he spent a lot of time watching “Law and Order” marathons featuring the popular character Jack McCoy — which ultimately convinced him to become a lawyer himself. By 1999, he had earned a law degree from the College of William and Mary.
In 2016, Grewal was appointed to Bergen County prosecutor by the Chris Christie administration. Then, in 2018, he was confirmed as New Jersey’s 61st attorney general by Governor Phil Murphy. However, following Sept. 11, 2001, Grewal decided to alter course from big law to dedicating his life to public service.
In the wake of 9/11, Grewal began to be targeted for the way he looked.
“People saw my turban and my beard and associated [me with] the people who they believed were responsible for [9/11]… I saw how easily fear could overtake our sense of decency, and how the government needed to be there for all of us in times of trial and tribulation to protect all Americans,” he said. “I wanted to do something about it… [I also wanted to] promote understanding through my work, that you don’t have to look a certain way or believe a certain way to be part of America.”
The event’s supporters were PSE&G, New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Group and the New Jersey Utilities Association. It was co-sponsored by the Rowan University Bantivoglio Honors Concentration; Center for Interdisciplinary Studies; Center for Responsible Leadership; Departments of History, Law and Justice, Political Science and Economics; Leadership Rowan; Program in American Studies and Program in Disaster Science and Emergency Management.
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