It’s looking increasingly unlikely that any members of the Board of Supervisors will be recused from next week’s big vote on whether to sustain the official misconduct charges against suspended Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, particularly given an advice letter written today by attorney Scott Emblidge, who is advising the board.
Mirkarimi and his attorneys were hoping some supervisors would admit discussing the case with Mayor Ed Lee or others – particularly Sup. Christina Olague, who is at the center of the controversy about whether Lee committed perjury when he denied, while testifying under oath, ever consulting with any supervisors about the case – and they were disappointed with Emblidge’s advice.
“Scott Emblidge parrots the language of the City Attorney in his recommendation against recusal,” Mirkarimi attorney David Waggoner told us, taking issue with the relationship Emblidge and his firm have with the city and the fact that he also served as legal counsel to the Ethics Commission, some of whose members were unaware of that dual role and expressed concern. “The board must appoint independent counsel.”
In his advice letter, Emblidge did take a similar position to that urged by the City Attorney’s Office, which argued that supervisors are assumed to be politicians who have some relationship with the person that they’re being asked to judge and that analogizing it to a jury in a criminal case isn’t accurate.
“That analogy is misguided. The Charter does not provide for resolution of official misconduct charges by a body unfamiliar with the parties or the facts of the dispute. Rather, it specifically entrusts that decision to the Board of Supervisors, a body composed of individuals who almost certainly would have had dealings with anyone charged with official misconduct,” Emblidge wrote in a letter requested by Board President David Chiu. “Rather than a jury trial, this proceeding is more like an administrative hearing involving employee discipline or other important rights.”
Emblidge said the legal standards indicate that a supervisor must have a financial interest in the decision or be so “personally embroiled” in the case that he/she would have already demonstrated a strong bias or animus against Mirkarimi. And even then, it would be up to a majority vote by the board to excuse a supervisor from the vote.
Such recusal votes are usually mere formalities once a supervisor claims a conflict-of-interest, as then-Sup. Gavin Newsom sometimes did on votes involving landlord-tenant relations. But given that it takes nine of the 11 votes to remove Mirkarimi – with each recusal effectively being a vote in his favor – claims of a conflict will be carefully scrutinized, which Emblidge thinks is appropriate.
“The bar should be high for recusal because of the three-fourths requirement,” Emblidge told the Guardian, making clear that was his personal rather than legal opinion.
The City Attorney’s Office strongly advised the supervisors earlier this year not to discuss the Mirkarimi case with anyone, and they have all heeded that advice and refused to discuss the case with reporters, adding to the drama surrounding a high-profile decision with huge potential long-term ramifications.
Unlike other big decisions, in which supervisors will publicly stake out positions before the vote, often making clear the political dynamics and swing votes, nobody really knows where any of the supervisors stand right now. It’s widely believed that progressive Sups. John Avalos and David Campos – both of whom have unexpectedly easy paths to reelection in November – are the most likely votes for Mirkarimi, with just one more vote needed to reinstate him.
Olague will be in a tough spot politically, torn between supporting the mayor who appointed her and a district that Mirkarimi once represented, where opposition to his removal seems strongest. Ditto with Sup. Jane Kim, a fellow former Green long allied with Mirkarimi, but also someone who backed Lee last year and has ambitions to be the next board president.
This is also a board filled with Ivy League lawyers, and it’s hard to say what aspect of this complex case will draw their focus. Will they side with those who say the decision is simply about showing zero tolerance for domestic violence, or will they share the concerns of Ethics Chair Benedict Hur, who calls this a potentially dangerous precedent that gives too much power to the mayor.
It’s even possible that someone from the board’s conservative bloc of Sups. Sean Elsbernd, Mark Farrell, and Carmen Chu might object to this costly and distracting move by government to go after one individual, making this more about limited government and deferring to voters rather than the fate of an individual for whom they have no particular fondness.
Until now, it’s been difficult to read these tea leaves, but that might be about to change. Emblidge argues that the grounds for recusal are so narrow and restrictive that even if supervisors make public statements about their thoughts on the case, that wouldn’t present a conflict-of-interest that would prevent them from voting on it, particularly now that they’re actively reviewing the record.
So, are we about to start getting some hints from under the dome about how this is going to play out? We’re listening and we’ll let you know.