County argues that it’s protecting itself from liability
Suspended Del Norte County District Attorney Jon Alexander sat in his usual chair in Department 1 of the county’s courthouse on Thursday.
The table where he was placed is used by prosecutors during criminal proceedings. He was there, instead, for a civil matter.
The hearing regarded a petition for reinstatement as lead prosecutor in the DA’s Office after being suspended by the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors last April following a State Bar judge’s recommendation to disbar him. Alexander has also been rendered ineligible to practice law by the same judge until his appeals against the recommended disbarment are settled.
Normally loquacious, he sat silently in the room watching the active attorneys make their cases to visiting Judge Leonard La Casse.
Alexander’s attorney, Rudy Nolen, kept the focus of his argument narrow, saying that the Supervisors acted beyond their authority when deciding to suspend Alexander without pay.
“Does he have the ability to stay in that office without the license? That’s probably not the question we need to answer today,” said Nolen, guiding La Casse back to the question of whether the supervisors’ action was correct.
Nolen had stated the Board of Supervisors didn’t give notice to Alexander that the hearing was going to happen and that Alexander didn’t attend the emergency meeting held by the supervisors when they decided to suspend him.
(A Triplicate reporter who was at the meeting saw Alexander in attendance and saw Alexander called in to address the supervisors during their closed session regarding the matter.)
Nolen argued the supervisors’ scope of authority with respect to the DA is limited to budgetary concerns. He decried the suspension as unconstitutional.
“We can’t have boards like the supervisors or any sitting body overrule the democratic process,” said Nolen.
County Counsel Gretchen Stuhr argued that the Board of Supervisors did not interfere with any prosecutorial duties regarding the DA’s Office, but the State Bar did when they rendered Alexander ineligible.
She stated the supervisors reacted to the State Bar judge’s decision in order to remove any problems and liabilities that may arise with having a sitting DA who cannot practice law.
While he would not be attending court if reinstated, his supervisory duties would create a conundrum for the other attorneys in the office who would be appearing in the court, Stuhr said.
“His assistants are in court,” said Stuhr. “You can’t really separate that. Any act they take is an act he takes.”
She went on to state the attorneys in the DA’s Office are concerned that if he were reinstated the State Bar could cite them for violations for practicing law on behalf of a DA who doesn’t have the credentials to perform the prosecutorial duties expected of him.
Stuhr also argued that by placing Alexander back into the office, civil rights suits may be filed by defendants in criminal cases arguing that they were prosecuted by an office who’s head doesn’t have the right to practice law, which opens up liability for the county.
Stuhr went on to say that if Alexander was placed back into office, the county would “have a situation where it appears the county is paying him not to fulfill his duties and not fulfill his job.”
“The board has the responsibility not to waste public funds,” said Stuhr.
La Casse is facing a situation that is virtually unprecedented in California and has provided him little case law to help him form a decision. Alexander could make history as California’s first district attorney to be disbarred.
Before the attorneys even began their arguments, La Casse stated, “I’m not going to have the last word in this case, let’s be real about this.”
Alexander’s petition to be reinstated is just part of his efforts to fight the State Bar’s actions and the ensuing consequences. And, if the petition doesn’t go his way, he will have the opportunity to appeal once again.
Alexander’s appeal with the review department for the State Bar is still pending. Oral arguments have yet to be scheduled. A decision from that department may not come until next March.
Then the case will have to go before the California Supreme Court, where Alexander can appeal the review department’s decision.
La Casse didn’t render a decision on Thursday. He has about 90 days to deliver one, which will likely be appealed.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said La Casse. “He’s elected and that means a lot in our society. On the other hand, I’m deeply troubled that I don’t know which way to go.”
If Alexander were to be reinstated, it would be a short-lived victory. He will not be able to run for District Attorney in next year’s election unless the State Bar places him back on active status. And, of course, if he isn’t disbarred first.