Russoniello has to go

Pub date December 15, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL When you look behind the problems San Francisco has had with its sanctuary city policy — the arrest and threatened deportation of kids as young as 15, the threats to city officials trying to protect juveniles, the threats to the new policy Sup. David Campos won approval for — there’s one major figure lurking: U.S. Attorney Joe Russoniello.

He’s the same one who was behind the raids on medical marijuana clubs. He’s a Republican whose former law firm, Cooley, Godward, gets hefty legal fees from representing Pacific Gas and Electric Co. — one of the biggest federal criminals in the land. He served under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

And it’s a mystery to us why this holdover from a discredited administration is still running the Justice Department in one of the most liberal parts of the United States.

The Obama administration has been slowly replacing Bush appointees with more progressive U.S. attorneys. Some say the process has been dragging on too long — after all, Bill Clinton fired every one of the nearly 100 U.S. attorneys shortly after taking office and started putting his own people in place right away. But in many states, the process has moved forward; 20 jurisdictions have new U.S. attorneys, and nominations are pending in about 10 more.

So why is the process taking so long in California?

Choosing a top federal prosecutor isn’t entirely the job of the president. Under long-held Washington traditions, the senior U.S. senator of the president’s party has tremendous influence over the selection process, and in California, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have split up the duties. Boxer is screening candidates for the Northern District, and Feinstein is handling the Central and Southern Districts. So for all practical purposes, Russoniello’s replacement is going to be chosen by Boxer.

The senator ought to be asking all the candidates the same question San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera recently asked Russoniello: Will you promise not to prosecute individual city workers who follow the San Francisco Sanctuary Ordinance? And she should finalize her choice quickly and send that name to the White House with all due dispatch. Russoniello has to go, and his departure is way overdue.

Herrera, meanwhile, has his own Sanctuary Ordinance challenges: Sup. David Campos has asked Herrera to formally advise the supervisors on the legality of Mayor Newsom’s refusal to follow the immigration policies that a veto-proof majority of the board passed. Newsom claims that the Campos law, which overturns Newsom’s policy of mandating that all juvenile offenders be reported to immigration authorities at the time of arrest, violates federal statutes.

In a Dec. 10 letter to Herrera, Campos warned that Newsom’s move would "establish the dangerous precedent that a mayor can disregard legislation that the board has properly passed.

"To say that this would undermine the board’s authority is an understatement. This is to say nothing of the fact that it would mean that undocumented children would continue to lack basic rights in San Francisco."

So that puts the city attorney — who is almost certainly going to run for mayor himself — on the hot seat. He needs to make a clear ruling that the mayor can’t just ignore city law. And he and Newsom should both be in touch with Boxer to urge her to move rapidly on a new U.S. attorney who will be more favorable to progressive immigration policies.