December 11, 2023

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What does the California Attorney General do?

As debates about criminal justice reform take center stage, Californians will elect a new attorney general this year.

The incumbent, Rob Bonta, was appointed in early 2021 and faces his first campaign for a full term. Gov. Gavin Newsom chose Bonta, a Democrat and former state lawmaker, to serve the rest of former Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s term after Becerra was appointed to a presidential cabinet position.

The attorney general wields a huge amount of power and resources to influence legal enforcement in California, both through the courts and policing.

At a time when crime and concerns about public safety are rising — and as debates about how some local prosecutors handle criminal charges bubble over — the attorney general has an increasingly influential role to play in how California addresses criminal justice.

But the job isn’t just about prosecuting violent crimes. The attorney general is often referred to as a state’s “top cop” or “the people’s attorney” and directs how criminal, environmental, consumer and other laws are carried out. They defend state laws and can file legal challenges against companies or the federal government.

In California, the office of Attorney General has increasingly been seen as a stepping stone to higher offices in state and federal government. The three most recent people to hold the position –– Jerry Brown, Kamala Harris and Xavier Becerra –– have gone on to become governor, the Vice President, and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Here’s a closer look at what the position actually does as California voters prepare to make a decision this year, starting with the June 7 primary election.

What does the attorney general do?

The attorney general ensures the state’s laws are followed and defends challenges to state law in court.

The elected official oversees the California Department of Justice, which has over 4,500 employees and is one of the largest agencies in the state.  

The California Constitution outlines the state attorney general’s responsibilities as:

  • Ensuring state laws are enforced
  • Supervising district attorneys and sheriffs (this can include requiring county officers to investigate, compile reports or prosecute within their jurisdictions. It also includes overseeing investigations of deadly use of force by law enforcement officers.)
  • Prosecuting violations of the law
  • Assisting district attorneys when applicable

While the attorney general can’t change state laws –– that’s the Legislature’s job –– the person in the office has an outsized role in directing how the state’s legal resources are used.

“It really is not just the chief law enforcement officer,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law school. The attorney general “sets policies in terms of, what do we care about when it comes to criminal justice and civil justice in California?”

That means the state’s top prosecutor often uses the office to pursue their own agenda. Harris focused on prosecuting mortgage fraud and privacy rights. Becerra — when he wasn’t filing lawsuits against the Trump administration — pursued antitrust cases against companies like Google and the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint.

Becerra also created an Environmental Justice Bureau within the California Justice Department to investigate and prosecute CEQA violations that lead to pollution and water contamination, particularly in underserved communities.

Since he was sworn in last year, current Attorney General Rob Bonta has reached settlements with companies accused of fraud and price-gouging during the pandemic. He has also signaled he will pursue legal action against local governments that violate new laws that allow more housing to be built.

And while the AG is supposed to defend state laws in the judicial system, they may also decide not to use resources appealing court decisions. For example, then-Attorney General Jerry Brown declined to appeal a federal ruling which struck down a statewide ban on same-sex marriage in 2010.

On the day-to-day side, the attorney general oversees district attorneys and sends legal alerts to ensure they are uniformly applying laws.

In January, Bonta sent a legal alert to law enforcement ordering that women are not to be criminalized for the loss of a pregnancy and that the state’s fetal murder law was intended to go after people who harm pregnant individuals. It stems from a Kings County woman who was charged with murder and sentenced to 11 years in prison after she delivered a stillborn baby with methamphetamine in his system. 

Since last year, the office has been tasked with investigating incidents of deadly force involving police officers. Bonta has more than a dozen pending investigations and has not filed any charges under the new law.  

How national politics influence the job, and vice-versa

An attorney general’s agenda is largely influenced by who occupies the White House, especially in a large state like California. If the attorney general disagrees with policy decisions made by a president, particularly of a different political party, they may use state resources to block or reverse them.

Attorneys general in larger states will often lead these types of lawsuits, with smaller states signing on and dedicating additional resources.

As attorney general, Becerra gained national notoriety by filing more than 120 lawsuits against the Trump administration on issues ranging from environmental regulations to immigration laws. In early 2021, Becerra was confirmed to a position in President Joe Biden’s cabinet.

“These offices have the ability to impact a presidential agenda, whether either side wants to admit it or not,” said Brandon Richards, a former staffer for the Democratic Attorneys General Association.

Now that Biden has replaced Donald Trump in the White House, the attacks on the presidential agenda have mostly come from Republican attorneys general in states like Texas and Missouri. They’ve brought suits over COVID-19 vaccine mandates for workers and the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.

“It’s a very powerful position, and it’s one that often flies under the radar when it comes to voters, regardless of what state you’re in,” Richards said.

However, the election for California attorney general is unlikely to fly under the radar this year. Voters’ concerns over crime and public safety are rising; the governor’s race will be lower-key after Newsom handily defeated a recall attempt last fall; and Bonta, the incumbent attorney general, is fighting for re-election after his appointment only a year ago following Becerra’s federal appointment. 

Criminal justice and the attorney general

Polls show California voters are growing increasingly concerned about crime, with 23% listing it as a top concern in a recent UC Berkeley survey.

While the Legislature writes criminal laws and local prosecutors handle most criminal cases, an attorney general could place more emphasis on charging, prosecuting and seeking higher sentences for certain criminal cases.

Levinson says that may look like a prosecutorial system that “focuses on more criminal justice as opposed to maybe more environmental justice.”

It’s not necessarily as simple as “tough” or “soft on crime,” though. Every case is different, but prosecuting attorneys face a plethora of decisions when handling criminal cases, Levinson said.

Those decisions include whether or not to push for sentence enhancements and the maximum possible sentence, try minors as adults, or focus on prosecuting lower-level offenses like drug possession or petty theft.

This year’s ballot

Bonta is seeking election for his first full term as attorney general since he was appointed to the post in early 2021. Previously, he served as a Democratic member of the state Assembly, representing Oakland and parts of the East Bay.

His challengers include Republicans Nathan Hochman, a former federal prosecutor, and Eric Early, a lawyer who advised the Recall Newsom campaign. 

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert is also seeking to unseat Bonta and is running as an independent. Attorney Dan Kapelovitz is running as a Green Party candidate. 

All five candidates will meet in a primary on June 7. The two who receive the most votes will move on to the general election in November.