Supporting Environmental Justice at State AG Offices: A Conversation with New Jersey AG Matthew J. Platkin

In this episode of Recharged with the State Impact Center, we invited New Jersey Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin to talk about his role as New Jersey’s chief law enforcement officer. We had the chance to learn more about the environmental justice work his office is doing throughout the state. AG Platkin also discussed his career trajectory, offering advice to law students, as well as upcoming opportunities to join his office’s stellar team.

Show Notes


Bethany Davis Noll: Hi, I’m Bethany Davis Noll and you’re listening to Recharged with the State Impact Center, a podcast where we tackle the latest legal and policy debates and 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.

Today, we’re joined by New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin. As New Jersey’s AG, he has put public trust at the core of his work and has used his office’s resources and authority to protect the people of his state in many different ways. We’ve invited AG Platkin to come and talk with us about his work as a state AG, his trajectory to becoming New Jersey’s Chief Law Enforcement Officer.

And this conversation is a continuation of our What is an AG series, where we highlight the unique work of state AGs. If you haven’t listened to the first episode in the series with New Mexico AG Raul Torrez, I highly recommend it to you. The link is available in today’s show notes. AG Platkin, welcome.

AG Matt Platkin: Thank you so much for having me.

Bethany Davis Noll: Okay. So I’m going to jump in, ask you some questions about your career path and the role you’re playing there in New Jersey. Can you help us understand the fundamentals of what it is to be an AG? And what the AG in New Jersey is responsible for?

AG Matt Platkin: Sure. Well, I think AGs, our primary job is to keep our residents safe and to stand up for our residents, whether it be in court or just in daily life.

And that includes a range of responsibilities. In New Jersey, I have very broad authority. So I am the chief law enforcement officer. I have complete oversight over the criminal justice system here. Whether it be criminal cases or police conduct, I have broad civil authority, including which I know we’re going to talk about with respect to the environment, but also civil rights, consumer protection, firearms, you name it, we have very broad authority here and we use it as aggressively as we can to protect our residents.

[00:02:00] Bethany Davis Noll: So what inspired you to pursue this career in law? First of all, and specifically as a state AG?

AG Matt Platkin: I think this is the best job anyone could have. Certainly any lawyer could have in part because of what I just said. I think we get to do incredible work every day on behalf of the millions of people in New Jersey, 9,3 million people who live here and I get to stand up on their behalf. And that’s really fun and rewarding. This was not a job I expected to have to be perfectly candid. I didn’t grow up saying I want to be the attorney general of New Jersey. One day I just knew I wanted to do work. that had an impact and that helped people.

And that was kind of clear to me from when I was young. I looked up to my grandfather, who was a career Naval officer and then government official. And I admired public servants and I wanted to be one. And I went to law school ultimately because I thought a law degree was a way to help people.

The tools that you develop as a lawyer, you Whether you’re standing up for one person or now standing up for nine million people, you’re really doing the same thing and you’re helping people navigate difficult problems and hopefully address them through the legal system in ways that makes their lives better.

And that’s what I’ve enjoyed doing. And now, as you know, the state’s attorney, I get to do that every day on behalf of people I know, on behalf of people I don’t know in a state that I grew up in. I’m raising my kids in, and I’m just really proud to do this work with the thousands of women and men who make up this incredible department that I have the privilege of running.

Bethany Davis Noll: Yeah, so as you’re doing that work, and thank you for doing all that. I know your office has prioritized civil rights, consumer rights, and environmental issues. Tell us how your priorities have evolved since you’ve taken office and how you envision your work, you know, specifically in those areas, helping the people of New Jersey.

AG Matt Platkin: Yeah. As I said, our job, my job and the people who work here, our job is to keep the residents of the state safe. And that I take a very broad view of that. So first and foremost, obviously means Keeping them safe from physical harm and we’ve tackled gun violence in a way that I don’t think anybody in the country is doing.

[00:04:00] We’ve treated it like the public health epidemic that it is. And as a result, because of our criminal enforcement, our robust civil enforcement, including holding firearms manufacturers and retailers accountable, we saw the lowest number of shootings on record in New Jersey last year. And we’re continuing to drive that down this year.

So that’s continued to stay a priority, but we also want people not just to be safe, but to feel safe. And in a time where we’re seeing intense bias and hate reach record levels in this country, and New Jersey is no exception, we’ve had to redouble our efforts here to protect our residents and make sure that they feel safe going about their daily lives, however it is they choose to do so, regardless of who they are, how they look.

Where they’re from, what language they speak, who they love, what gender they identify as you name it. And so that’s continued to be a core priority. You mentioned protecting consumers. Well, consumer protection laws have been around for a long time, but their uses have certainly evolved. So we are using our consumer protection laws to combat the opioid epidemic and to hold accountable, big tech companies that are preying on our kids.

And of course, with respect to the environment. We are using every available tool to protect particularly our most vulnerable communities from environmental harms resulting from climate change and other pollution. So we’re using our tools as aggressively as we can, how it’s changed. I think there’ve been a number, I don’t think the priorities have changed a whole lot, but there’s certainly been intervening factors.

Take the Supreme Court, right? And back to back days, my first June in office a little under two years ago, we had the Bruin decision and the Dobbs decision. You know, I never expected that in New Jersey I’d be in court. Litigating whether you could keep a gun out of my kid’s classroom over my objection.

[00:06:00] But that’s what we’re doing now. I never expected that we’d have to stand up a task force to protect what is the law in New Jersey, access to reproductive health care and abortion services. That’s the law here. I didn’t expect we’d have to devote the amount of resources that we do, but I also didn’t see the Supreme Court reversing for the first time in our lifetimes, a fundamental right and settled precedent with over 50 years of experience under it.

And so, There certainly have been some intervening factors, and you know, we continue to rise to new challenges, but the core priority is about keeping our residents safe, broadly speaking, remain intact.

Bethany Davis Noll: Talk about an incredible job. I want to get back to what it’s like to work there, how students who work with me can get a job working with you, but let’s talk a little bit more about the environmental issues that you just brought up.

And the environmental justice focus of your office. New Jersey as a state has a strong commitment to supporting environmental justice. In 2020, the state passed an important environmental justice law, the first of its kind in the country. Can you tell us more about that?

AG Matt Platkin: Yeah. And I was very proud to work on that law back when I was serving as governor Murphy’s chief counsel.

We know that everybody’s experiencing the impact of climate change. Everybody’s feeling the impact of climate change. Pollution on our communities, but we know that certain communities feel those impacts more acutely than others. And unfortunately, as with so many issues too often, the effects of climate change and other environmental harms are born.

disproportionately by those who are lower income, who are minority, who are not native English speakers and who live in communities that are deeply affected by this crisis. Take New Jersey is a coastal state. As you know, we love our shore. It’s an iconic part of our state and a huge part of who we are.

And I think oftentimes when you think about the impact of climate change on New Jersey, we think about the shore and we should. Sea level rise is certainly affecting our coastal communities. But people [00:08:00] often forget that our coastal communities include cities like Jersey City and Newark and Elizabeth and Atlantic City.

And those populations are experiencing the impact of rising sea level and climate change more broadly, just as acutely, if not more so than any other community in this country. We certainly saw that in Superstorm Sandy. You can look at rates of asthma amongst communities. of color and see that white kids are less than half as likely to be asthmatic than black kids in the state of New Jersey.

So we know that environmental harms are disproportionately felt by communities of color, by low income communities, and by immigrant communities. And yet for a long time, they didn’t receive The extra protections to account for those increased harms under state law. And so I think in a nutshell, what the environmental justice law does is ensure new applications that we’re taking in those disproportionate effects into account.

And we’re proud to counsel the Department of Environmental Protection as they’re thinking that through. And then certainly for us, as we’re thinking through where we are going to bring enforcement actions, we are prioritizing cases in communities that often were ignored. When it comes to protecting them from the impact of environmental harms.

Bethany Davis Noll: Tell me more about those cases. You know, tell me more about the cases that you’re bringing and sort of the role that environmental justice plays in those cases for you and for the people who work in your office with you.

AG Matt Platkin: Well, we have a whole team dedicated to environmental justice affirmative cases brought in environmental justice communities.

And so as we’re thinking through cases to bring, we prioritize cases that impact our EJ communities. Uh, and what I mean by that is communities that are disproportionately minority, low income, non native English speaking. That’s what the law says, but that’s also, I think, what common sense says as to what are environmental justice communities.

[00:10:00] And we look at cases large and small that have an impact. So on the large end, you can think about the climate deception case we filed against the largest, oil and gas producers as well as their trade association for the harms that our state is still experiencing as a result of a multiple decade effort to conceal the impact of climate change from our residents, preventing the state from taking common sense actions that could have helped mitigate against the effects of climate change actions that candidly these companies themselves took to protect their own products and services.

And that’s a case that we’re actively litigating in state court, and I’m confident that we will prevail down to cases that are large in the sense that they impact significant numbers of people at the community level, like a case we filed against a blueberry farm where they had a significant number of migrant workers.

whose water well systems were contaminated from septic and sewage. Despite multiple inspections, they did not fix it. So we sued them and we obtained meaningful injunctive relief that ensured that those workers, again, a very vulnerable population were able to get clean drinking water. Something I think we all take for granted, but unfortunately too many people are at risk.

And then you can think about other, a number of other cases, whether it be a toxic dirt pile or. A business that’s polluting into a river or not properly disposing of toxic materials. And again, these are things that I think in a lot of communities, they don’t exist, but they exist disproportionately in our EJ communities.

And for too long, they were ignored. And I had somebody once say, how much is that really going to make a difference? I think we have to look at the whole food chain of these types of cases, because you know what, that toxic dirt pile that didn’t get cleaned up for decades can prevent. an entire neighborhood from being developed economically.

It can depress home values. It can obviously cause health impacts on the residents. And so that seems to me like a pretty big deal if I’m living in that neighborhood, even though it may not have the national reach that our climate litigation is going to have. And so we’ve put everyone on notice that large or small, we’re going to hold you accountable.

[00:12:00] We’ve obtained tens of millions of dollars in penalties and fees from people who violated our environmental laws on our EJ cases and on larger cases, we’ve obtained. In fact, last year, we just obtained the largest ever settlement in New Jersey against Salve for our PFAS case, which brought in almost 400 million to remediate significant environmental harms to our drinking water in South Jersey.

So, we’re looking up and down the chain. We’ll bring cases that are international in scope and will bring cases that are very local if it has a meaningful impact for our residents. And that’s what I think makes these cases so important because each one, no matter how big or how small they seem, fundamentally affects people’s lives.

Bethany Davis Noll: That’s incredible. I’ve definitely heard it said that the law only matters as much as it’s enforced. And this, this focus you’re putting here is definitely going to have an impact and already having an impact. And then on top of that, you know, your environmental justice statute has an impact on the front end by making it possible for your agency to deny permits if they’re going to have an additional disproportionate burden on one of these communities.

It’s sort of a combined effect there. That seems pretty, you know, hopefully to have the impact that that person who was speaking with you was looking for.

AG Matt Platkin: I think to that end, as you said, if you don’t enforce the laws, then they’re really just press releases. And so I think we have to look at front end and back end accountability.

You know, litigation is a very expensive, time consuming way to prevent harm. It’s far better if we can prevent the harm on the front end. And that’s what the DEP, Department of Environmental Protection is trying to do. And we’re proud to be working with them on that effort.

Bethany Davis Noll: Yeah. So what’s it like to work on environmental justice and environmental law in your office?

[00:14:00] Right now I’m thinking about The students I alluded to before, you know, I like to try to get them excited to get to, to do this kind of work and to look for these jobs. And I think we can really make an impact because they hear about DOJ and they hear about federal government and all that. They don’t often hear about a state AG, and yet it’s exciting to have the range of possible work that there is to do at an AG’s office.

So what does it look like in your office to do environmental law? And how can somebody get a job there?

AG Matt Platkin: Well, we’re hiring. That’s the headline here. I think the state AG’s office is the best place in the country to work. And I would argue that our office is the best state AG’s office to work. But there are certainly many other great ones too.

And I would say that, frankly, even if I wasn’t the Attorney General. I think in the early part Parts of your career, particularly you want to find places where you can grow and the best ways to grow is to find work that’s meaningful that matters to you and work that will give you opportunities to develop your skills, whether it’s appearing in court or arguing or filing complaints or litigating or developing policies, we offer all that.

And I would argue that nowhere is that combination of meaningful work And great experience better than it is in an office like ours. We are a big office by AG’s offices. We might be the biggest, our division of law, which is our civil law division, is about 550 attorneys. We have about 150 attorneys that do all of our affirmative work.

That’s up from maybe 20 attorneys just a few years ago. So we’ve significantly invested in that. But if you think about that, okay, you may say, well, there’s 150 attorneys, but that’s across all of our priority areas. So you take the climate litigation, there might be a few attorneys working on that against obviously some of the most heavily resourced companies in the world.

And so what an amazing opportunity to talk about meaningful impact litigation, where you’re diving in and getting, you know, your hands dirty, doing the hard work to litigate those cases, developing your own skills along the way, again, on cases that really matter. I think that’s the sweet spot and where you’ll find it.

[00:16:00] Grow and be satisfied as a lawyer in a way that may not be true in many other offices. And the other thing that I love about being in a state, I think state government is the best level of government because we’re big enough that we can move the needle, particularly when we partner with our fellow state AGs offices, as we do often on multi state litigation, but yet we’re local enough that I know.

Pretty much every community that we’re working with. So the EJ communities we’re talking about, I’ve been there. I’ve often seen the sites. I know people who live there and that, that matters. That’s motivating and we can pivot, you know, we’re not a, we’re not the Titanic, we can move on a dime. And so when the Dobbs decision came down in June of 2022, early the following week, I had a task force stood up bringing civil and criminal authorities to protect.

Reproductive healthcare in New Jersey. We created a whole new office dedicated to suing firearm manufacturers. The environmental justice affirmative litigation section that I mentioned didn’t exist a few years ago. It’s now staffed with a number of attorneys, both younger attorneys and more seasoned attorneys bringing some of the most impactful cases, not just in New Jersey, but across the country.

So we’re able to be nimble. We’ll be able to be flexible and we’re able to be a little bit more entrepreneurial, all of which I think. It makes it a really exciting place. Plus you get to live in New Jersey. What could be better than that?

Bethany Davis Noll: So what kind of jobs do you hire for regularly and what kind of jobs might people look out for?

AG Matt Platkin: Yeah. So for your students, I think there’s really two types of opportunities to consider, and they’re both frankly, relatively similar. The first is we do have an honors program, which I just doubled in size last year. It’s been a phenomenal success for our department. We hire graduating 3Ls and people finishing clerkships, and fellowships.

[00:18:00] So if you’re in any one of those categories, you know, our application will come out in the fall and we make offers typically by Martin Luther King Day in January, so that we give you plenty of lead time. So for those of you who are going to be rising 3Ls, please consider, or if you’re going to a clerkship next year and you want to Maybe come work for us.

The program is amazing. It’s a two year program, and we let you work in a number of priority areas. You could do two rotations. So we’ve had people do environmental litigation and go and do public corruption work or civil rights work or working on our firearms cases. And then at the end of the two years, Most of the honors fellows have stayed, which I think is a testament to the work we’re doing, but we also allow them to pick which rotation they liked best, and then they can go back and do that work.

And there aren’t many places in the country where you could do civil and criminal in your first two years in office and get meaningful experience, or you could focus and do two years in an area that you care about. If the Honors Fellow cycle doesn’t work out with your timing, we also are constantly hiring for Deputies Attorney General who come in the same way an Honors Fellow comes in.

An Honors Fellow is a Deputy Attorney General and our DHG gets to come in and work on impactful cases. Um, you can go on our website. We’re constantly posting and if any of your students are interested, please connect them with us. We’d love to talk to them about careers here. I will say, I really mean it.

I think the experience you get in a state AG’s office like ours is second to none. And not only will you get to do good work, but it will be good for you professionally and you’ll be able to advance your career as a result of it.

Bethany Davis Noll: That’s great. Yeah, and we’re going to put the links to all this in the show notes for the listeners.

And I’ll say, you know, I lateraled from a firm. So we’re talking to folks out there that Do I lateraled from a firm into the New York AG’s office? I didn’t know how exciting it was to work in the New Jersey AG’s office or else I would have I would have applied there too

AG Matt Platkin: And we do that a lot too. We get a lot of people from firms.

Uh, and so if you’re in private practice, whether you have five years or 50 years, we’ve had all ranges of people decide they wanted to come and be public servants and do good work on behalf of the residents here. And you know, what I think is increasingly exciting is our office, along with a number of others, we’re leading national efforts, whether it’s opioids or environmental cases or firearms or consumer protection, big tech cases.

[00:20:00] We’ve stepped up where, frankly, the federal government has a more difficult time, either because of the developments in federal courts, which have been hostile to a lot of the theories that, that we’re pursuing, or, frankly, Congress’s inability to pass laws, you know, state legislatures still pass laws, state courts are still open channels for a lot of arguments that the Supreme Court, I think incorrectly, has said can’t make in federal court.

And so we are very much in business, even at a time when it’s more challenging in the federal system. And so if you’re a mid-career and you’re thinking about making a change, we see a lot of that and we have opportunities at very senior levels and, and also more junior levels to get great experience here.

Bethany Davis Noll: That’s so great. Yeah. States are where it’s at. So tell me, you know, do you have too many parting thoughts for us? And also as part of that, I would really love to hear how you keep yourself going, you know, just as a person. I mean, this is a huge job and you’ve got your little kids to take care of too. I mean, tell us how you keep going and also what your parting thoughts are for our listeners.

AG Matt Platkin: Motivation is not a hard thing in this job. The work there’s really very little that we do that’s not important. You know, sometimes it’s literally life or death and sometimes it feels that way, but it’s all really important and it all matters to people. When you talk about the decision we made to take over the Patterson Police Department, the third largest city in the state of New Jersey, fundamentally reshaped that department In ways that made people more safe and improve the community’s relationship with law enforcement, or like I said about tackling gun violence or standing up on behalf of trans youth who are being targeted in violation of their rights under state law for political purposes.

[00:22:00] You know, we do so much important work here, even beyond what we’ve just talked about on this platform about our environmental work that it’s really not hard to be motivated. But. Having young kids makes it even all that much more motivating. I mean the issues we’re talking about are going to fundamentally shape their lives.

Whether or not we can adequately respond to the climate crisis, whether we can end the gun violence epidemic so that a gun is not the most likely cause of death for a child, whether we can Stop social media companies from targeting our kids in ways that are creating a mental health crisis in this country.

Whether we could protect their civil rights so that they don’t feel afraid about who they are and how they identify. All of those things. Challenges that we’re dealing with in 2024 are going to shape how my kids and our kids grow up and develop for decades to come. And so, you know, that’s really motivating, but I do try to carve out my own personal time with them.

I take my son to school every morning. I’m up early. I go for my runs and you know, that’s like my therapy, but. And you have to find that. But the most important thing I think is if you do work that matters and you do work that you’re passionate about, and you do work that has an impact, it’s not hard to find that motivation.

It doesn’t, you know, I look forward to Mondays getting back to work, not that work stops over the weekend, but I look forward to it because I’m We have a clock here. There’s only so much time I’ll get in this job and I don’t want to waste a moment of it. And I hope more people want to come and join us because we’re doing great work here.

Bethany Davis Noll: Thank you so much for sharing that with us. And also thank you for sharing, you know, all about the office with us. And I’m certain this is going to get some students and some lateral attorneys excited out there. And just in general for you and everybody in your office, thank you for the hard work you’re doing to protect people in your state.

And I think it has spillover effects on the other states too, that are really beneficial. So, really, just a big thank you and thanks for joining us today.

[00:24:00] AG Matt Platkin: Thanks, Bethany. Thanks for doing this and for highlighting this important work and for all you do at the Center. Really appreciate it.

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

AG Matthew J. Platkin

AG Matthew J. Platkin

New Jersey Attorney General

As New Jersey’s chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Platkin has prioritized the safety of New Jersey residents, focusing on combating violent crime and implementing innovative public safety strategies. He has specifically targeted gun crimes and auto thefts, resulting in significant reductions in both areas during his tenure. He has also spearheaded efforts to change how law enforcement responds to mental health emergencies by connecting individuals to resources, underscored by the innovative ARRIVE Together program. He received his Bachelor of Arts from Stanford University, and his Juris Doctor from Stanford Law School, where he was an editor of the Stanford Law Review.

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