New approach for the new U.S. attorney

Pub date August 17, 2010

EDITORIAL Joseph Russoniello, the U.S. attorney who terrorized immigrants, city employees, and medical marijuana growers, is finally out of office, replaced Aug. 13 by an Obama nominee screened by Sen. Barbara Boxer. Melinda Haag is the second female U.S. attorney in California history and the first since the 1920s. She’s taking over an office that pushed all the wrong priorities and served as an outpost of Bush administration values in Democratic Northern California, and she needs to turn that around, quickly and visibly.

President Obama has made it clear that he doesn’t want his Justice Department wasting valuable resources busting people who grow, sell, and use pot for medicine. And while the president has been slow and far too cautious on immigration reform, he has resisted the nativist movement and harsh attacks on undocumented immigrants. But a U.S. attorney has a tremendous amount of discretion on law enforcement priorities, and Haag could easily slide along, refusing to break with the policies of her predecessor.

That would be a serious mistake, one that would reflect poorly not only on the Obama administration but on Boxer, who under the traditions of Senatorial courtesy played a central role in choosing Haag.

The new U.S. attorney should:

Disband the grand jury that’s been investigating whether city employees violated federal law by failing to turn suspected illegal immigrants over to immigration authorities. The grand jury started sending subpoenas to city agencies two years ago and raised the specter that some local juvenile justice workers might face charges. The move set off policy changes by Mayor Gavin Newsom that have led to more than 100 young people being torn from their families and sent to federal immigration detention centers.

The grand jury operates at the U.S. attorney’s discretion, and while its activities are secret, Haag could and should announce that the investigation is closed and no charges are pending.

Inform City Attorney Dennis Herrera that no city employee will face federal criminal charges for complying with the city’s Sanctuary Ordinance. The threat of criminal charges has given Newsom cover for refusing to implement a sanctuary law that the supervisors passed over his veto. The law, sponsored by Sup. David Campos, directs city workers not to turn juveniles over to Immigration Control and Enforcement until they’ve been convicted of a felony. Herrera asked Russoniello for assurance that city employees could implement the law without fear of federal indictment, and the Republican appointee refused. Haag should give Herrera, and all city employees, written assurance that she won’t press charges over the sanctuary policy.

Stop the pot busts — and don’t try to undermine Prop. 19. Even after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made clear that he isn’t interested in harassing medical cannabis operations, local growers and outlets remain fearful of federal prosecution. And if the state’s voters legalize pot this fall, as appears likely, the weed will still be illegal under federal law. Haag needs to let the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration know that she’s not going to take any cases involving legitimate medical marijuana operations — and that she won’t use her office to undermine state law if Prop. 19 passes.

Of course, if the U.S. attorney’s office stops wasting time and money cracking down on pot growers and immigrants, the lawyers who work under Haag may have time to do some more relevant and worthwhile law enforcement. They could, for example, start looking into enforcing a federal law called the Raker Act, which requires San Francisco to operate a public power system.