Suspended District Attorney Jon Alexander lost his petition to be reinstated to office after a judge's ruling was issued Friday, creating case law for the virtually unprecedented situation of what a county government should do when its district attorney is recommended for disbarment.
Alexander filed the petition 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.
The petition sought a writ from the court ordering that Alexander be restored to office, with back pay, costs of suit and attorney fees.
The case boiled down to a simple question: Did the Board of Supervisors act in excess of its authority?
Visiting Judge Leonard LaCasse denied the petition for writ of mandate Friday, relying more on a mathematical logic formula since there was no case law to rely on.
Although there is case law that prevents a county governing board from interfering with a district attorney's allocation of resources and prosecutorial discretion "this case concerns capacity to perform duties itself," LaCasse wrote in the ruling.
The 1867 state Supreme Court, as cited by LaCasse, said that it is not necessary to obtain a license to practice law to become district attorney, but in 1947 a state law was passed that provides: "A person is not eligible to the office of district attorney unless he has been admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of the State."
LaCasse ruled that the DA must be licensed to practice law and "cannot act through deputies and assistants if he is not so licensed."
It is self-evident "that an agent's power flows from his principal.If the principal is not licensed, the agent's acts are void," LaCasse wrote.
"Essentially the deputy district attorneys would be violating the law by working for and taking directions from an individual not licensed to practice law," the ruling says.
The state Attorney General's Office could have acted "in a case like this to prevent a difficult situation from arising," the ruling states, but when the Board of Supervisors made an informal inquiry to the AG's Office about this case, Kamala Harris declined to act.
Based on statutes indicating that someone must have a license to practice law; and the countysupervisors' power to fill vacancies, the Board did not act in excess of its authority, LaCasse ruled.
"Without having read the opinion, I will not speculate on Judge LaCasse's reasoning, although nothing in the county's written opposition provided persuasive legal authority for this decision," Alexander wrote Friday in an email to the Triplicate. "As with the State Bar, we will seek justice in a higher court."
Del Norte County's general counsel and the chairman of the Board of Supervisors could not be reached for comment.
"My real sadness today is not personal, but for the people of this county who have been disenfranchised ..." Alexander said. "On my behalf,theirs and my attorneys, who despite my indigency, continue to stand on principle, I consider this a standing 8 count only."
Reach Adam Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org.