L.A. Prosecutors Are at Loggerheads with Their New Boss, George Gascón

The union that represents local prosecutors filed suit against the new DA earlier this week

On Wednesday afternoon, a judge ordered Los Angeles County’s new District Attorney, George Gascón, to show why the court shouldn’t block criminal-justice reforms he has issued in the weeks since taking office on December 7—reforms county prosecutors say ignore or violate state law.

The order by L.A. Superior Court Judge David Cowan was in response to a lawsuit that the union representing county prosecutors filed against Gascón earlier that day. At issue is a series of executive actions Gascón issued that bar prosecutors from charging criminal sentencing enhancements under the Three Strikes Law and direct them to withdraw all pre-existing enhancement allegations for factors like gang affiliation or possession of a firearm.

In the 18-page complaint, the Association of Deputy District Attorneys of Los Angeles argues that Gascón has overstepped his executive authority with directives they say conflict with California’s mandatory sentencing enhancement laws. The new DA’s directives, the lawsuit says, “are not merely radical, but plainly unlawful.”

The legal battle offers a window into the post-election conflict that is roiling inside the country’s largest prosecutor’s office. Gascón, 66, campaigned on a promise to soften the adversarial stance of the office and “turn the tide of mass incarceration and start anew.” County prosecutors say that their new boss is forcing them to choose between upholding state law established to hold people accountable and protect public safety and obeying the blanket directives to keep their jobs.

“Los Angeles County prosecutors have been placed in an impossible position. Do we follow our legal and ethical responsibilities and risk getting disciplined, even fired, by our new boss?” ADDA vice president Eric Siddall said in a statement. “Or do we follow his policy directives and risk losing our California State Bar Cards and, by extension, our ability to practice law anywhere in the state? We’re asking a court to answer those questions.”

Judge Cowan’s order gives Gascón until January 15 to oppose the union’s request for a court injunction. Gascón must show why prosecutors should be prohibited from pleading and proving prior strikes under California’s Three Strikes Sentencing Initiative, or required to dismiss prior strike enhancements, gang enhancements, and firearm allegations from a pending criminal proceedings.

In a statement following the ruling, Gascón said that “enhancements and strike allegations have never been shown to enhance our safety.”

“After a summer of unrest, Los Angeles County voters embraced this new, modern approach. The will of the voters must not be mistaken as a commentary on the hundreds of Deputy DAs who labor, day in and day out, to protect the public,” he said.

Statements from Gascón’s supporters began circulating online on Tuesday.

“We are confident this attempt to obstruct the will of the voters will be struck down,” said one letter signed by UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and Michael Romano of Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project.

Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and Miriam Krinsky of the reform-oriented group Fair and Just Prosecution were among those voiced their support for the embattled DA.

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