Days after the June 2015 church massacre in which nine African Americans were shot to death by white supremacist Dylann Roof during Bible study, Matt Platkin flew to the scene in Charleston, South Carolina.
At the time Platkin, JD ’14 (BA ’09), was practicing law at Debevoise & Plimpton, where he worked on both civil and criminal cases before the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, the U.S. Department of Justice, and various regulatory agencies. Tackling the scourge of gun violence had long been one of his animating passions. The mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church struck a deep nerve.
“I spent that day in front of Mother Emanuel,” recounts Platkin. He didn’t know any of the parishioners, and he didn’t tell anyone except his wife he was going, he says, but he needed to bear witness. “I wanted people to see there were people who looked like me, but who didn’t go to that church to do what that guy did.”
Platkin calls his daylong vigil “one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I grew up in the Columbine generation. I thought we’d have fixed this by now.”
He’s working on it. After serving as chief counsel to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy from 2018 to 2020, Platkin was named attorney general last year—making him, at age 35, the youngest state attorney general in the country.
Today Platkin is the top law enforcement official in a state that’s been recognized as a national leader in strong gun laws. In March he announced plans to appeal a federal judge’s orders blocking parts of the state’s ban on guns in public spaces including bars, parks, beaches, and libraries. And following a major tough-on-crime push, he touted double-digit drops in gun violence and car thefts.
Since his confirmation on September 29, 2022, he’s been an active attorney general. Earlier this year, he won a case he’d personally argued before the New Jersey Supreme Court, the first chief of his office to have done so in more than a dozen years. The justices unanimously agreed with his position on clarifying the state’s new cannabis reform statute, reversing a lower court.
In March he seized control of the Paterson Police Department after a 31-year-old man who worked as an anti-violence counselor was shot and killed during an hours-long standoff with law enforcement officers—the latest black eye for a police department plagued by accusations of misconduct.
Platkin’s route to the influential AG’s post can be traced to a young boy’s admiration for a local sports hero: Brevin Knight, a basketball star from East Orange, New Jersey, who went on to lead the Stanford Cardinal in a stunning upset over Wake Forest in a key March Madness game in 1997.
That settled it for the young hoops fan: “Stanford was a part of me before I was part of Stanford,” says Platkin, who grew up not far from East Orange. He told his attorney father, “I’m going to be a point guard at Stanford.” Dad cheered. “He told me that Stanford is better than Harvard. And from then on if I did anything he disapproved of, it was, ‘You keep that up and you’ll never get into Stanford.’”
Though the basketball thing didn’t work out, “Stanford was central to my path,” Platkin said in a talk at the law school last October. He may have left the Farm a decade ago, but he identified with his student audience. “I’m young in spirit. I’m still jealous of everyone who’s still there.”
Platkin was introduced at the talk by a mentor who became a friend, Diane T. Chin, director of the John and Terry Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest Law.
Chin recalls how Platkin and Salvador Pérez, JD ’14 (BA ’07), showed up in her office to discuss how to expand student participation in pro bono work. “They’d done a thoughtful system analysis and created some creative messaging about what public service could do in training future lawyers.”
From the first, Chin adds, Platkin struck her as “incredibly creative, talented, and self-confident.” Pérez, now an attorney at a Los Angeles firm, says he was not surprised to learn that Platkin had traveled to Charleston in the wake of the 2015 shooting. The Sandy Hook horror took place during their 2L finals. “It left a lasting scar on many of us,” Pérez says. Platkin’s response to Charleston “felt incredibly true to the Matt I know. Tremendously principled, action-oriented, and thoughtful.”
“I grew up in the Columbine generation. I thought we’d have fixed this by now.” —Matt Platkin, JD ’14 (BA ’09)
At SLS, Platkin served as president of the American Constitution Society and as an editor of the Stanford Law Review. One summer he worked on the policy team for Cory Booker’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. Platkin graduated with pro bono distinction. In 2020, he served as special counsel to Booker during then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial.
Even before law school, Platkin had been immersed in public interest work. After collecting undergraduate degrees in political science and economics, he moved to San Antonio to helm the successful city council election drive of his close friend Rey Saldaña (BA ’09/MA ’10). Platkin pitched in. “I told Rey if he decided to run, I’d come down and manage his campaign for him,” he says. “It was an act of hubris, and it may not have been the best hiring practice on Rey’s part, but the price was right.”
The former classmates, both 24, ran an outsider campaign, ignoring conventional wisdom about Latino voter apathy. They knocked on thousands of doors, increased district turnout 11 percent and beat a heavily favored opponent by 13 points. During his first semester at SLS, Platkin described the effort in a New York Times opinion piece: “People don’t vote when no one asks them to,” he concluded.
Platkin’s interest in politics and public service are a by-product of growing up amid New Jersey’s pervasive electoral rough-and-tumble. “Politics were a big part of our household,” he says, and a grandfather he admired deeply had been a naval officer involved in nuclear disarmament work.
Pamela S. Karlan, the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law, says that early in Platkin’s time at SLS, “it was clear that he had that rare combination of doctrinal firepower—he’s just a really smart lawyer—and practical savvy from being immersed in New Jersey politics. He was a star in the class.”
Beyond that, Karlan says, “What I’ll remember best about him is his tremendous collegiality and kindness: I’ve saved a trove of emails over the years where he’s cheered me on. If you looked in the dictionary under ‘mensch,’ you’d see a photo of Matt.” SL
John Roemer is a legal affairs journalist with a long career at The Daily Journal.