SUNDAY Q&A WITH … Cynthia Hudson, Virginia’s chief deputy attorney general

Chief Deputy Attorney General Cynthia Hudson poses in the Attorney General's office in Richmond, VA Friday, June 6,, 2014.

In 2012, when she was city attorney in Hampton, Virginia Lawyers Weekly named Cynthia Hudson one of the most influential women in Virginia.

Less than two years later, Hudson would join Attorney General Mark R. Herring’s team as chief deputy attorney general. She is the first African-American woman to serve in the role.

A native of Crewe, in Nottoway County, Hudson is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University. She earned her law degree from the College of William and Mary.

Hudson became Hampton’s city attorney eight years ago. She first joined that office in 1996. Before entering public service, she worked in private practice in Richmond for eight years.

Hudson is former president of the Local Government Attorneys of Virginia and is on the board of directors of the Virginia Law Foundation.

How many attorneys work under you, and what’s your typical day like?

As chief deputy, I’m responsible for ensuring the office is meeting Attorney General Herring’s primary goal of delivering prompt, high-quality legal work to all of our client agencies, boards, commissions, and universities. The Office of Attorney General is comprised of nearly 200 attorneys and about 200 additional staff members, mostly in Richmond, but also in offices in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia and Hampton Roads.

My typical day starts with a well-organized set of priorities which usually gets disrupted almost immediately. As the equivalent of the managing partner or chief operating officer of the state’s law firm, I have to react on short notice to daily developments within our agency and in our client agencies. In addition to putting out the daily fires, I find myself advancing a variety of administrative matters related to personnel, procurement, policy application, as well as giving substantive input, as needed, in all the areas of the office’s legal work.

It makes for a very professionally challenging and rewarding work experience, considering it is all done in the public interest.

Can you give us a sense of the variety of legal matters that the Attorney General’s Office handles?

The variety of legal matters is as broad and vast as the responsibilities of state government. The office is divided into five divisions, each headed by a deputy attorney general who reports to me, and each one presents important and often fascinating legal questions on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s as routine as an employment matter at a university or agency; sometimes it’s something more high-profile such as the decision to fight for marriage equality.

We encounter a variety of public safety matters like criminal appeals, prosecutions of sexually violent predators, and anti-gang initiatives. We handle civil matters like lawsuits against the state, consumer protection investigations, or lawsuits against businesses for illegal or deceptive practices. We, of course, address matters of legal compliance by state agencies, and I personally review every official opinion of the attorney general and, literally, hundreds of legislative bills. Basically, if the state government has a role, there’s always a chance it will cross my desk.

Your boss hit the ground running. Within the first three months in office, he has sparked several controversies over his positions on same-sex marriage and in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants. Is it hard to keep up with his pace?

It’s really exciting to be a part of a team that’s leading on some of the biggest legal issues facing Virginia. The pace has been breathtaking, but in a very satisfying way, because each of those outcomes came from an approach that attracted me to service in this administration. Attorney General Herring made it clear to me, our division deputies, section chiefs and every attorney in the office that we are to start first and foremost with what the law requires. He also encouraged us to look for ways to use the law to help and protect Virginians, because that’s ultimately the purpose of our legal system.

I have an appreciation for the way the law can help people because without amazing Virginia lawyers who came before me, I might never have had such opportunities in my life to go to public schools, attend law school, and build a career in the legal profession.

It’s been particularly rewarding to play a role in some of the major decisions of the office, such as the decision to fight for marriage equality, or the interpretation of the law that will make higher education an affordable possibility for DREAMers, or the decision to defend the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan. As a longtime resident of Hampton, that one had special meaning to me because I know how much progress we’ve made in recent years. Because we begin the decision-making process with an examination of the law, rather than a desired result, it gratifies me as a legal practitioner. We’re not just doing policy for policy’s sake, but policy as dictated by the requirements of the law and the powers of the attorney general.

Prior to joining Herring’s team you served as city attorney for Hampton. How are these two jobs different, and how did you adjust?

The jobs are similar in the ways one might expect. It’s still public sector law in the commonwealth of Virginia, but the scope and stage is much larger when your client agencies have such broad and extensive powers, especially compared to a locality. My local government experience was a particularly helpful proving ground for the work I’m doing now. It gave me a very extensive understanding of Virginia government and how it’s structured, the Virginia Constitution and the relationship between state and local government and between the branches of Virginia government. All of that experience has proved incredibly helpful in my service with Attorney General Herring’s administration.

Earlier this year, you were on a shortlist of candidates for a federal judgeship in Richmond. Is that a job you’d still like to do one day?

Right now I’m necessarily rooted in the present. The weight and variety of my responsibilities right now don’t permit me to look much beyond that. While I know I’ll have to look toward the future eventually, and the law is certainly something that I love, I realize we have a limited amount of time to help Attorney General Herring accomplish his goals.

What does the chief deputy attorney general enjoy doing when she’s not working?

These first few months have been quite a whirlwind, but when I get some free time I enjoy gardening, reading, traveling with my daughter and spending time with my huge extended family. I’m the youngest of seven siblings who live around the country, and my mother and extended family are still in Crewe, Virginia, in Nottoway County. Having lived in Hampton Roads for a number of years, I always love getting back there to the water, whether it’s fishing, boating, or heading to the beach.

I’ve also really enjoyed getting reacquainted with Richmond, especially around my neighborhood of Woodland Heights. I haven’t lived here in almost 15 years, and it’s such a different city in so many ways. But all the things I’ve always loved about Richmond are the same, and it feels really good to be back here. I love the history, the variety of neighborhoods, and its role as the center of government, but also a real magnet for businesses and arts. It’s like revisiting a chapter in your life you thought might have closed.

Markus Schmidt

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