By Rory Fleming
On September 29, Judge Bruce Chan, a former public defender, seemingly crushed San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, complaining that there is “constant turnover” and “constant managerial reorganization,” and that he has seen several “instances where the fundamentals of competent, professional prosecution have not occurred.”
The criticism was harder to wave away for progressives because Chan is a former public defender, not some cowboy hat-wearing, gun-in-the-holster former prosecutor. Public defender glamorization is becoming more common on the left, though one recent study found that the federal judge with the most racist track record in America once served as a public defender in Philadelphia.
Yet, for a number of key reasons, virtually major DA offices suffer from some degree of dysfunction.
For one, no other country today handles the bulk of its prosecution service through a localized system; prosecutors instead benefit from the resources and oversight that a national governmental system provides.
Also, as a Harvard Law Review article sagely noted, line prosecutor actions are not constantly surveilled, thus there is “significant potential for noncompliance from those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy due to a lack of buy-in to the goals of the head prosecutor.” Especially urban DA offices are too large for the top person to know what every deputy is doing at all times, since there are many hundreds of them.
The RAND Corporation has discussed how “high caseloads, limited resources, and higher salaries from private firms or larger agencies, lead to burnout and a high turnover rate.” Law school debt is often six figures, yet prosecutors in some big cities, like Miami, earn as low as $52,000. Assuming high turnover signals problems with a DA or his administration is fallacious.
However, we know most about the managerial problems in DA’s offices managed by progressives because of the mainstream press bias against progressive DAs. Short of a scandal with the scope of the “snitch scandal” in Orange County, where constitutional rights were allegedly flouted in a large number of cases over a course of several years (if not decades), major media outlets rarely direct serious attention to the ways in which moderate or conservative DAs fail the public.
For example, it took a governmental audit fourteen years after the California District Attorneys Association first started collecting extra funds for environmental and worker safety cases for a newspaper in the state to cover that organization’s mishandling of the money.
That disinterest in DA mismanagement issues also extends to personnel issues.
Michael Ramos, the DA of San Bernardino County from 2002 to 2019, was sued for allegedly sexually harassing and assaulting the secretary of his office’s Sexually Violent Predator Unit for years, then retaliating against her at work. While he lost re-election in 2018, he somehow evaded #MeToo-level scrutiny, despite the lawsuit predating his tenure as the President of the National District Attorneys Association. Even now, he sits on the board of the California Crime Victims Alliance.
In 2011, former Deputy District Attorney Christine Trevino sent an email to at least 50 employees of the San Diego County DA’s office titled “My Death.” She accused then-DA Bonnie Dumanis’s administration of unfairly siding with another staffer in a dispute, and speculated Dumanis and others would try to “cover up” her impending death as a mental health issue afterward. She ended the email by stating, “YOUR administration is to blame!” and she shot herself during a traffic stop the next day. To date, no one knows what transpired to trigger Trevino’s suicide, and whether Dumanis’s protege, current DA Summer Stephan, had anything to do with it. Local reporting left out the salient details, and the office has refused to answer public records inquiries into the matter.
On one level, it is not surprising that Judge Chan would join the hysterical pile-on against DA Boudin. He is a Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointee who also served as the Chief Counsel of the California State Assembly’s Committee on Public Safety from 2000 to 2004, the height of mass incarceration. That’s a far cry from the four San Francisco public defenders who challenged Schwarzenegger judges in 2018 as a way to “shake up the courts.”
Rory Fleming is a writer and licensed attorney.