SAN FRANCISCO – Today, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California and four local community organizations asked a California Court of Appeal to stop three district attorneys from acting outside of their authority to illegally intervene in a federal lawsuit. The prosecutors seek to undo an agreement between the state and people on death row that followed from Governor Newsom’s moratorium on executions.
Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement (COPE), Riverside All of Us or None (RAOUON), Starting over Inc., and Silicon Valley De-Bug, along with the ACLU, filed the writ of mandate in California’s First District Court of Appeal. The suit calls on the court to prohibit three district attorneys – San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe, San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson, and Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin – from interfering in federal death penalty litigation that is beyond the scope of their legal mandate.
“What the district attorneys of San Bernardino, Riverside and San Mateo are doing is a brazen overreach,” said Emi MacLean, a senior attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “These DAs are rogue actors who seek to ignore the constitution and create their own rules. Their lawlessness cannot stand.”
California law makes it clear that when a private party files a federal lawsuit against the state, the attorney general is responsible for defending the state’s interest. District attorneys do not have the authority to engage in such litigation without clear and express statutory authority. Yet, Wagstaffe, Anderson and Hestrin, have sought to intervene in a federal death penalty case to fast-track the execution of people who were sentenced to death in their counties.
“This is a question of prosecutorial accountability,” said Vonya Quarles, executive director of Starting Over, Inc. “It’s also a question of our humanity—no DA should be permitted to overrule the governor in a bloodthirsty quest for executions.”
In 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that put a moratorium on executions and closed San Quentin’s death row. The people on death row then dismissed a long-running constitutional challenge to the state’s execution process. The state agreed that if actions to execute restarted, the case can resume with stays of execution in place during that litigation.
But now, three regressive district attorneys are attempting to interfere in this legal challenge and overturn the agreement. A district court denied the prosecutors’ previous motion to intervene in the federal case. But undeterred, the prosecutors appealed to the Ninth Circuit which has not yet ruled.
"We have a new crop of progressive district attorneys in California who are working to change policies that have led to the overincarceration of Black and indigenous people and other people of color," said Rev. Samuel Casey, executive director of COPE. "It's not surprising that the old guard is digging in their heels and fighting to defend the policies of yesterday -- harsh sentences, and more Black and Brown people locked up for longer. Not on our watch."
The ACLU Foundations of Northern and Southern California and Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass LLP are co-counsel representing petitioners.