A Focus on New Mexico’s New Attorney General Raúl Torrez

In this episode of Recharged with the State Impact Center we begin a series that will help us answer the question: What is a State AG? To help us kick off the series, we invited New Mexico’s 32nd State Attorney General, Raúl Torrez to speak with our Executive Director, Bethany Davis Noll. Their conversation covers AG Torrez’s extensive background, his advice for people interested in public service, and his priorities for his state.



Bethany Davis Noll: [00:00:00] Hi, I’m Bethany Davis Noll. You’re listening to Recharged with the State Impact Center, a podcast where we tackle the latest legal and policy debates about how to protect the planet and people’s health with a focus on the powers and duties of state AGs. Combining research and expertise with a look at careers in this field, we will learn more about the role of states in protecting people and the role you and I can play.

This is the first episode of our new series. What is the State Attorney General? Where we break down the role of state AGs and the significance they play on the national and local scene. If you ask around, many people probably would not be able to name who their State Attorney General is, let alone what the job entails.

But state AGs play an important role in defending, enforcing, and promoting laws and policies that protect you and me, both at the state and national level. And learning more about the impact that they have in our state and community can help us better understand the role we can play as the public in ensuring that our AGs are advocating and fighting for policies and regulations that are in our best interest. In today’s episode, New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez talks about his career and his goals as New Mexico’s new state AG.

Today, we’re joined by New Mexico’s 32nd Attorney General Raúl Torrez, a career state and federal prosecutor. Attorney General Torrez has worked at every level of the criminal justice system from serving as a frontline violent crimes prosecutor in a small rural community to providing strategic counsel as a senior advisor in President Obama’s Department of Justice.

We’ve invited AG Torrez to come and talk with us about his work as a state attorney general and his trajectory to becoming New Mexico’s chief legal officer. AG Torrez, welcome. We’re so excited to have you.

AG Torrez: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

Bethany Davis Noll: All right. So let’s get started. I want you to tell us, for people who are not that familiar with the office of a state attorney general, could you help us understand some of the fundamentals of the role?

What is the AG in New Mexico responsible for?

AG Torrez: [00:02:00] Well, the Attorney General’s office in New Mexico is a lot like the AG’s offices around the country. We are the chief law enforcement and legal officer for the state, which means we’re supposed to prosecute and defend any civil action that is either brought by or against state agencies, state institutions, public officers.

But we also have a role to play in criminal enforcement and we provide legal counsel to various executive agencies when they’re developing rules and regulations and sort of developing the framework that they use for overseeing a variety of different industries. We also play an important role in the legislative process.

We’re asked to render an opinion. Oftentimes on the constitutionality of proposed legislation and really try and be a sounding board for sound public policy. So we end up in a lot of different spaces. We end up either litigating in areas that range from everything from civil rights to environmental oversight, regulation.

We bring affirmative cases on behalf of consumers that have been harmed, and then we also engage. And a lot of the sort of policy development, both at the executive level and then in the legislature.

Bethany Davis Noll: That’s great. Sounds like an exciting job with a lot of different varieties. So what does someone need to do or study in order to qualify to be an AG?

AG Torrez: There’s no sort of 1 path. A lot of my colleagues from around the country come from a variety of different backgrounds. The attorney general from Colorado, for example, Phil Weiser was a career DOJ antitrust lawyer. And then he was an academic. He was actually the Dean of the law school at the University of Colorado, but there are other AGs from around the country that come from the criminal side.

[00:04:00] They’re prosecutors like me, we have people who have served in the private sector. And so there really is no one definitive path to being able to serve in this role, but it certainly adds to your ability to sort of make decisions on the fly if you’ve got a fair amount of experience, at least in the courtroom, because we’re called upon on a fairly regular basis to sort of give our guidance and judgment on how and when to engage in litigation on behalf of the state.

And so I found that the courtroom experience has actually been pretty invaluable for me in this role.

Bethany Davis Noll: Well, that’s great. Okay. So another thing that’s really interesting about you is you’re pretty new at this job. You’ve been a career prosecutor, but you’re new at this job and I would love to hear about your thoughts on what your priorities are for New Mexico.

AG Torrez: Well, New Mexico is a state that is probably a little bit behind the curve historically in terms of empowering the attorney general’s office to engage in affirmative litigation, specifically civil litigation. And so we’ve been trying to build out the affirmative litigation side of our agency focused on three primary areas.

One is environmental protection. The other is consumer protection. And the 3rd is civil rights. We have engaged historically in a variety of consumer protection initiatives in the past 40 or 50 years, but we really haven’t been as active in the environmental space or in civil rights and so those are two aspects of the agency that we’re really starting to build out and we’re trying to recruit people from not only New Mexico, but across the country who may have a passion for those different areas of the law and really understand the kind of profound systemic change that we can bring about in the attorney general’s offices. Anytime you’re filing an action on behalf of the state, it has the ability to sort of reshape not only individual industries and aspects of the private sector, but really reorient the way that government operates across a lot of different areas.

[00:06:00] And so we’ve been heavily focused on that. It’s a little bit surprising, I think, for some of my colleagues who know me from my work as a prosecutor. I was the district attorney here in Albuquerque in Bernalillo County, which is the largest county here in New Mexico, and I think there was an expectation that we would be heavily invested in expanding our capacity in criminal enforcement, and we’re certainly engaged in some of that, specifically with respect to human trafficking, the online solicitation of children, child pornography, complex criminal cases that cut across different jurisdictions, and most recently, some officer involved shootings.

But what we’re really trying to do is leave the lion’s share of the criminal work in our state to the respective district attorneys that come from 14 different districts that are spread across the state and really try and focus on the civil work that probably hasn’t gotten as much attention as it otherwise would have.

I know a lot of my colleagues in bigger states and states that have, say, a longer tradition of pretty active civil litigation and affirmative litigation really have these well established civil rights units and environmental protection units. These are relatively new aspects of our office, but we’re excited about developing them and that’s why having the opportunity to talk to you is a really important venue for us.

Bethany Davis Noll: Yeah, that’s fantastic. I mean, I’m just speaking for myself, I didn’t know what an AG did before I applied for a job at an AG’s office. And, you know, I think it’s really big, it’s very valuable to be able to picture it. So what would you tell somebody who’s out there in a law firm and thinking about a public service career or somebody graduating from law school. There’s a lot of people interested in public interest careers and they might also be interested in public service careers, but they might not even know about the office option.

Give us some examples of some cases that they might be able to bring if they come to work for you and, you can give us something you guys have already filed.

AG Torrez: For people that are interested in criminal law, we just announced charges against an officer who was involved in killing an unarmed man in southern New Mexico.

[00:08:00] It’s a pretty straightforward example of excessive force. We do some more complicated things in the civil side. We filed an action against the manufacturers of forever chemicals, so called PFAS chemicals. And so we are going to be engaged in litigation to try and hold those manufacturers accountable and to get to a place where we can recover damages and use those funds to remediate the harm here in different watersheds across the state.

But we’re also looking at bringing affirmative action on behalf of children who are in state custody or who are subject to cases involving abuse and neglect. There’s been, sadly, a real crisis in our protective services agencies here in New Mexico, and there’s been a number of children who have ended up being returned to homes and subsequently being abused and even killed. And so we’re going to be bringing affirmative litigation on behalf of those children. But at the same time, we’re involved in a suit alleging inequity in resources and funding and education, specifically taking over litigation where there was a finding by a judge here in New Mexico that the state had failed to provide adequate resources for Native American children, for English language learners, for children with disabilities.

And so, even in a defensive posture, we’re going to be able to really, I think, drive some positive change for some of those communities that had been left out of the formulation. And at the same time, we’re going to be looking proactively at allegations of disparate punishment and treatment for minority kids and Native American children in some rural school districts.

And so we’re engaged in all of those efforts all at the same time, and frankly, when I was running for attorney general, those are the things that I had anticipated. Some of the things that I hadn’t anticipated, but quickly had to get involved in is the changing landscape post dobs and access to reproductive.

[00:10:00] There were a number of local governments who were sort of prodded by some conservative activists in Texas to try and effectively use the Comstock Act, which is a criminal statute, a federal criminal statute from the middle of the 19th century. And, they were trying to use it as a way to prohibit access to reproductive healthcare in a number of counties on the Eastern side of the state.

So we filed a writ to prohibit them from doing that. And I’ll be making an argument in front of the New Mexico Supreme Court about the state constitutional basis for continued access to reproductive health care. So if you think about it, if you’re engaged or interested in a career in public service, and you want to use your law degree to engage in that kind of service, there’s really no place like the attorney general’s office in any state to kind of find the breadth and diversity of legal issues that you can make a contribution to.

You know, it’s like anything else in public service. We certainly don’t pay what you would probably expect to earn in the private sector, but I can tell you having worked in the private sector and having a number of friends and colleagues who have gone down that path most of the time when we get together, I listened to some of their stories about the cases that they’re working on and while they certainly have probably earned a lot more money over the last 20 years, I don’t think they’ve had as many interesting cases and as impactful cases as the kinds that we’ve been able to engage in here. And so I’m really excited about the opportunity. It’s a small office, relatively young staff, and we’re still actively sort of recruiting folks to come in and join in that effort.

And you know, this is the kind of place where other things in our country have sort of demonstrated, let’s say a sliding back of the protection of certain individual rights or environmental protection or things of that nature. State AGs have the ability under state law and their state constitutions to really develop a new area of protecting really important things like clean air, clean water, basic civil rights, access to the ballot and real meaningful and thoughtful attempts at criminal justice reform. And so it’s an opportunity to just do a lot of work in one location. And, the other great thing about it is that we have the opportunity to cross train people.

[00:12:00] So there are folks who are interested in consumer protection, they start showing an interest in doing antitrust. So we start giving them that opportunity. And then there may be an opportunity later on to do environmental protection. And so we like to give people cross training and opportunity to do different things wherever they are at, whatever stage they happen to be in their careers.

And it’s pretty impactful and it’s pretty meaningful to be able to provide that kind of guidance and counsel to a state like New Mexico. And every AG’s office in the country has really the same kind of unique authority and jurisdiction over these issues. And so it’s an exciting place to work.

It’s a lot to take in. It’s a lot to manage all at once, but it really is a place where you feel like you’re making a difference.

Bethany Davis Noll: Yeah, that’s exciting that you do the cross training. That makes your office pretty special. I think that’s pretty appealing.

AG Torrez: Yeah, I mean, I think everyone, especially folks that work in large law offices, they get to a point in their careers and they want to change a pace and they get kind of, you know, they have the comfort of being an expert in something in an area of the law that they practiced in for a long period of time, but then sometimes they get a little captured by that and things can get a little stale and so one of the things that we really tried to do is open up the opportunities for people to learn.

To move between divisions and get access to individualized training and specialized training. And so still early days in terms of how we’re going to organize this in a way to have the maximum impact across all these different issue areas. But I think it’s incredibly important to give people that opportunity to learn and grow and test themselves and there really is no better place to do it because we do so many varied and interesting types of cases that there really is no limit to what you can get engaged in.

Bethany Davis Noll [00:14:00] : Yeah. On top of the fact that there’s so many issues that cross over all the different silos, like health inequities and environmental justice and a bunch of other areas, you know, labor that might affect one person.

AG Torrez: It’s really great. It’s really great to have that perspective and really start thinking about how a particular member of our community may be impacted simultaneously by different government agencies or different actors in the private sector and in the marketplace, and to be able to bring all of those people and resources to bear to advocate for people when they need it, it’s just a really fulfilling place to be in a place to work.

Bethany Davis Noll: Yeah, that’s what’s incredible about AG offices. There’s this variety of tools that you have. You’ve got from public education to enforcement to national advocacy that allows you to fill in the gaps that the federal government has left, you know, big, huge gaps that they’ve left and allows you to help real people.

I mean, I remember when I was working at, in my job at the New York attorney general’s office, having cases that had to do with daycare licenses, and I was taking my kid to daycare in the morning. I just felt like this was a job that had an impact on real people. It was so apparent.

AG Torrez: Yeah, when you start digging into the authority that our office has, and the offices across the country have there’s almost no aspect of government or marketplace regulation where the Attorney General’s office doesn’t have some role to play. And you really can, to your point, you can connect the dots between the work that you’re doing and the improvement that you hope to see in the community that you’re living in.

Bethany Davis Noll: That’s great.

So we’ve been talking a lot about the role of an AG and now I wanna talk more about you and your career path. So let’s start with what inspired you to pursue this career in law? And now you’re State Attorney General, so give us some insight into that.

AG Torrez: [00:16:00] Yeah. I mean, I wish I had some sort of lightning bolt moment, but it’s actually a relatively boring story. My parents are both public servants. My dad was the longest serving federal prosecutor in the state of New Mexico. My mom was a public school teacher. As I tell people time and again, I didn’t have the chops or the skills or the courage to go and try and be a teacher because I just, I’m not cut out for it.

And so I always had a sense that I would like to pursue a career in the law. I actually didn’t know a whole lot about the kind of work that my father did growing up in part because of security concerns. He really didn’t let me come and watch him in court and do the work that he did as both the state and federal prosecutor.

And it wasn’t, frankly, until I got into law school and I had a chance to do a mock trial and get engaged in trial advocacy that I realized that I was never going to cut it as an appellate lawyer. I didn’t have the chops to be an academic. I wasn’t really interested in transactional work, but I really was drawn to the courtroom and to juries and to just the ability to make an argument on behalf of other people. And so when I came back to New Mexico, I was lucky enough to be on a loan forgiveness program for public interest and ended up in the same small rural county that he had started off.

Years before there were actually people in that office who had known my dad when he was there. He used to take care of me when I was a little kid and they were on the verge of retirement. And I came back as a line attorney and I just got thrown into the courtroom right away. And I, frankly, was ready for the formal sort of aspects of it.

I had pretty good training in law school and I knew my way, or at least I felt like I knew my way around the courtroom relatively well. What I wasn’t prepared for was the real psychological impact and emotional impact of doing the job.

[00:18:00] I’ve told this story countless times, but my very first trial was a trial involving a little boy named Marcelino Aragon, who was an infant when he was left in the care of his father, who was suffering from addiction issues and had a whole host of trauma in his own life.

And long story short, he had abused Marcellino and shaken Marcellino so severely that he almost died and he was left permanently impaired. And so, I was getting ready for that trial and I called my dad and I said, what am I not thinking of? And I was expecting him to give me some advice about how to prepare my expert witness or how to deal with the jury.

And he asked me if I met Marcellino. If I’d met this little boy and I hadn’t done that, it didn’t occur to me to do that because he was still a child and he was never going to be able to testify. He said you should do that. And so the foster parents brought him to our office, a tiny little office and this out of the way place.

And they got him out of the baby carrier and I couldn’t tell that there was anything wrong immediately, but pretty soon you could start to see that there were profound impacts and neurological effects that were lingering and that would impact him probably for the rest of his life. AndI just wasn’t prepared for that.

And so the foster family scooped him up and took him outside and went home. And I went outside and I got on the phone with my Then girlfriend and now wife and I just started crying and I said I can’t I can’t do this job I can’t handle what this is and she sort of listened to me crying for a little bit and she said, Are you done? Because you went and you got all these degrees and you got this education if you’re not gonna use it for this little boy what are you gonna use it for? And so, it really put everything in the proper perspective and we went and secured a conviction and I thought there was going to be this moment of like triumph that I had accomplished something that had really resulted in justice and then they went to sentence his father and I realized that there had been this long history of trauma and abuse and drugs and all sorts of other issues and there was really no triumph in it.

[00:20:00] We did what we had to do and tried to hold his father accountable. But, I had this realization that if I wanted to do something more for my community, it wasn’t going to be enough to just try and convict someone who had abused this little boy. I wanted to try and understand more about it.

And I went on to become something of a child abuse prosecutor. I went to the all face receiving home and listened to the disclosures of pretty young kids talk about sexual assault, physical abuse. And it really led me down this path to focusing on early childhood trauma and trying to protect kids and trying to up the cycle of violence and so that you fast forward down to, to being attorney general, I have the ability to try and fix a broken system for child protective services.

Not so much as a way to advance criminal prosecutions, but to try and save more kids and protect more families. And so it’s just this unplanned path to the courtroom that took me down a very challenging sort of emotionally and psychologically challenging road. But it’s been well worth it. And at every level, I’ve just had this opportunity that if I feel like I can make some positive change and then maybe move on to try and do something else.

And it’s what prompted me to first run for DA and now run for attorney general. And I’m just really excited by it, but I’m still kind of overwhelmed by the things I can’t do. I still, you know, my mom’s now retired and my dad is too, and you could easily hand me a murder case to go and try before you try to ask me to go and teach a kindergarten class.

[00:22:00] So I’m very much aware of what my limitations are, but I’m satisfied that I’ve been able to make a positive contribution to the community.

Bethany Davis Noll: That’s incredible. Thank you for sharing that story. What a powerful story, but you do have a skill you can use to help people. That’s clearly there.

So speaking of skills, actually, you know, there’s other lawyers out there wondering how to follow this career path. Think about somebody in law school or somebody out there with their first job. What skills or qualities do you believe are essential to success in this role in this career path?

AG Torrez: Well, I think you have to have a commitment to public service, right? This is not by design really a place for people that don’t have at a very basic level that need to try and make the world a better place for as cliche as that sound. It really requires you to kind of think about the things that motivate you, hopefully, to go to law school in the first place and there are people that I know that are dear friends of mine, but they’ve just never really been drawn to public interest.

They’re great lawyers on behalf of their clients, but in order to do this job effectively, I think you have to start with that core commitment. And a lot of times people are in a position to sort of explore that side of themselves early on, maybe because of debt, maybe because of other considerations, but I’ve known enough lawyers throughout my career that, at a certain point, people start to wonder whether or not what they’re doing in their firm or in their private practice is really doing enough to sort of give full meaning to the work that they do day in and day out.

[00:24:00] And attorney general’s office is a great place to sort of go and explore that and find that we’re obviously looking for gifted advocates, gifted writers and researchers, people who can navigate complex public policy questions and political questions. And so you have to have some of those basic skills that every good attorney is supposed to have the right kind of temperament, the right kind of focus on what matters the ability to prioritize a lot of different competing interests because our agencies are large in the sense that we have this breadth and diverse sort of portfolio of issues that we’re supposed to tackle, but we’re still relatively small agencies. So we have to pick and choose the battles that we engage in and the cases that we take.

And so it requires a lot of judgment, in terms of prioritizing what matters. I always joke with some of the attorneys in my office. They never, a lot of them never went in and understood the concept of opportunity costs and they bury themselves in one fight or another. And they don’t realize that there’s 10 other things that they need to probably be focused on.

And so we’re looking for people that have, like I said, that commitment to public service, that professional ethic, that sense of integrity and more than anything else, the willingness to try and advocate for people who by virtue of a lot of different factors in our society, they just don’t have the ability, the resources, the knowledge to advocate for themselves.

I mean, fundamentally we’re called upon to establish the department of justice in the state of New Mexico. And what that means is giving a voice to people who oftentimes don’t know how to navigate these systems and they don’t have a lobbyist. They can’t hire their own private counsel, but there’s still somebody dumping something toxic or poisonous into the river, or there’s a situation that’s impacting the air quality

[00:26:00] of what their children are breathing in every day because of some industrial facility or they’ve been the victim of government agency or bureaucracy that doesn’t seem properly resourced or staffed and the adults that they’re counting on have failed to protect them and so the one thing that I also really want my lawyers to understand is that it’s not like serving private clients when we make mistakes or we have a lapse in focus or judgment, there are real consequences attached to that.

And so people need to sort of hold that public trust with a certain reverence that oftentimes is a little bit, let’s say, harder to find when you’re engaged in private practice.

Bethany Davis Noll: Yeah, that’s right. And one thing I like to tell my students is it’s all about pouring yourself into your work no matter what it is, whether it’s like a huge doc review that just makes your mind go, you know, turns it into jelly.

You just pour yourself into it. And that’s how you get yourself the next case. That’s how you get yourself to the next transition in your career. That’s going to be more exciting. It doesn’t matter what it is. You just have to pour your all in. That’s another sort of that’s absolutely right.

Quality that will really serve you.

Well. Okay. So, well, let’s talk about, I want to end on a note about New Mexico. So tell me about your state. Tell me what you love most about it. Tell us something that we should know about it.

AG Torrez: Well New Mexico is, and I’m sure a lot of people feel this way about their home and where they come from, because they know it better than somebody who’s just visiting. But this is a very special place. And it’s a place that culturally, when you get here, you can feel and you can sense and see that this is a place that existed before the United States, right? You know, Santa Fe was founded in, I believe the early 1600s. This is a place with a pretty unique cultural history. It’s a beautiful place. I mean, we’ve got some of the most extraordinary natural landscapes that you’ve ever seen from these incredible mountains to deserts to skiing and you’ve got this breadth and diversity of outdoor opportunities that brings sort of a unique and eclectic group of people here.

[00:28:00] It’s a big state geographically, but we don’t have a lot of folks, a lot of people living here, a lot of my friends back East like to joke about how there’s probably more cattle than there are people. And I don’t think they’re wrong about that, but it’s a wide open and unique place that blends Hispanic culture, Native American culture and American culture, sort of all in this interesting to do and, and it’s also a place that’s played a prominent role in American history. Right? Like, we, a lot of people were really enthralled with the new Oppenheimer film that came out this last summer and all of the work that was done to develop the first nuclear weapon was done here in New Mexico, but also a lot of the fallout happened here.

Right? And so there’s an environmental legacy, which touched my family, in fact, and has impacted a lot of communities here. And so this is just a place where the pace is a little bit slower. People are a little bit open, I think, to trying to really get to know one another. When I go and see my friends in different parts of the country, I’m always fascinated by the extent to which the pace just changes pretty dramatically, but people here have a lot of grit and determination.

They have a big heart. This is just a place that if you’ve never been here I always try and encourage folks to come and visit because it’s really hard to explain how in the same place that that gave you Billy the kid also gave you some of the most advanced Department of Energy projects in the history of this country and sort of it’s all just mixed in together.

But once you get it into your system and get it into your blood, it’s sort of hard to think about any place else.

Bethany Davis Noll: [00:30:00] That’s amazing. Yeah, I think the invitation to visit is something we would all love to take up basically immediately at all times. It’s a beautiful state. Thank you so much for sharing with us, you know, sharing with us the love you have for your state and, you know, about the work of your office and your work and of yourself and just this incredible work you’re doing.

It’s really nice to be able to learn more about it. And, um. And to be inspired by you.

AG Torrez: Yeah, no, absolutely. And, and, uh, like, like I say, it’s the kind of thing where you may not have thought of going to the attorney general’s office and you may not have thought of ever being in a place like New Mexico, but when you’re kind of grinding it out and in some career somewhere and you’re thinking, wow, maybe it’s time for me to have a change of pace.

This kind of work in this kind of place is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m just really grateful to be able to serve and I really appreciate you reaching out and giving us an opportunity to kind of connect with other folks across the country and maybe if we’ve inspired them to do anything, I hope they take it and run with it and do something meaningful and impactful in their lives.

Because there’s certainly a lot of work that needs to be done both here and across the country and around the world.

Bethany Davis Noll: Yeah, that’s fantastic. And to keep their eyes on the job postings at agency offices all over the country. That’s another thing. That’s right. Thank you so much, Raúl. Thanks for being with us today.

This is really fun talking with you.

AG Torrez: Yeah, you bet. Take care.

Jasmine Elbekraoui: [00:32:00] Thank you for listening to today’s episode. Links to the material discussed are available in the show notes. You can find it by searching Recharged, that’s R E C H A R G E D, on our website at stateimpactcenter. org. If you have any questions on today’s episode or previous ones, you can email us at stateimpactcenter at nyu.edu and follow us on Twitter and Instagram using the handle at stateimpactcenter. Recharged with the State Impact Center was produced and edited by Jasmine Elbekraoui and Carlos Minaya.

Bethany Davis Noll

Bethany Davis Noll

Executive Director

Bethany Davis Noll is an expert in administrative and environmental law and an experienced litigator. She is an adjunct professor at NYU Law and former co-chair of the Environmental Law Committee of the New York City Bar Association.

Read More
Raúl Torrez

Raúl Torrez

New Mexico Attorney General

A career state and federal prosecutor, Attorney General Torrez has worked at every level of the criminal justice system – from serving as a front line violent crimes prosecutor in a small rural community to providing strategic counsel as a senior advisor in President Obama’s Department of Justice. A graduate of Harvard University, the London School of Economics, and Stanford Law School, Attorney General Torrez was sworn in as New Mexico’s 32nd Attorney General on January 1st, 2023