Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón cannot prohibit prosecutors from seeking sentencing enhancements for defendants under the state’s “three-strikes” law, the California Second District Court of Appeal ruled Thursday, June 2.
The court’s opinion affirms a 2021 preliminary injunction issued by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant, who ruled that Gascón’s three-strikes enhancement ban is illegal and violates the rights of prosecutors.
“The district attorney overstates his authority,” the appellate court said, concurring with the lower court ruling. “He is an elected official who must comply with the law, not a sovereign with absolute, unreviewable discretion.”
Still, the state’s Constitution and Supreme Court vest district attorneys with sole authority to determine whom to charge, what charges to file and pursue, and what punishment to seek, the appellate court said.
“That power cannot be stripped from the district attorney by the Legislature, judiciary, or voter initiative without amending the California Constitution,” said the court.
Gascón seemingly seized on that statement to declare the ruling as a victory for his office.
“Today’s ruling maintains the district attorney’s discretion and authority as an elected constitutional officer,” the District Attorney’s Office said in an email. “The court affirmed his ability to pursue his policy goals in the furtherance of justice.”
California’s three-strikes law was enacted by voters in 1994 to add prison time to the terms of previously convicted felons. The law requires that defendants convicted of any felony, with two or more previous felony strikes, be sentenced to a mandated prison term of 25 years to life. The law also doubles prison sentences for second strikers.
The injunction follows a lawsuit filed by the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, which argued that a series of controversial directives issued by Gascón immediately after taking office are unlawful and violate prosecutorial discretion.
Gascón appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the ADDA lacked standing to challenge the directives.
However, the appellate court disagreed, noting that the ADDA represents about 800 prosecutors and is the union’s certified bargaining unit.
“On the issue of standing, we conclude ADDA has associational standing to seek relief on behalf of its members,” the court said. “On the merits, we conclude the voters and the Legislature created a duty … that requires prosecutors to plead prior serious or violent felony convictions to ensure the alternative sentencing scheme created by the three-strikes law applies to repeat offenders.”
Eric Siddall, vice president of the ADDA, said the appellate court ruling validates the union’s argument that Gascón’s blanket directives are an abuse of power.
“Today, the Court gave a civics lesson to George Gascón. He must follow the law,” he said. “He must respect the separation of powers. His power is not absolute. The ADDA wishes we did not need to seek judicial intervention to affirm these basic principles of our government, but our hand was forced by the illegal actions taken by Mr. Gascón. So, while today represents a great day for the rule of law, it is a stain on Gascón’s legacy.”
The ADDA has been at odds with Gascón since 2019, when he began campaigning for office, and continuing after his election a year later, amid promises of sweeping social justice reforms.
More than a half-dozen prosecutors have filed lawsuits alleging they were retaliated against and demoted for refusing to carry out Gascón’s policies.
Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, a candidate for California attorney general, led efforts in persuading prosecutors from around the state to file a brief in support of the ADDA lawsuit.
“I urged the California District Attorneys Association to intervene in the lawsuit brought by the Los Angeles Association of Deputy District Attorneys because George Gascon’s actions were clearly illegal and designed to undermine the rule of law,” she said in an email.
“Allowing his illegal practices to continue would have devastating consequences for crime victims and public safety in Los Angeles and beyond. The citizens of Los Angeles deserve to have a district attorney who will enforce the law; not one who seeks to dismantle and destroy public safety.”
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