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The District Attorney's Race Has Lost Its Star Attraction

November 03, 1996|Charles L. Lindner | Charles L. Lindner is past president of the Los Angeles Criminal Bar Assn

Two days before the election, and many deputy district attorneys remain undecided on who would be their best boss. The O.J. Simpson "not guilty" verdict plays big in the public mind, but to veteran prosecutors, it's a secondary consideration. Their dilemma balances questions about Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti's personal integrity in running the office against John F. Lynch's apparent desire to return power to a clique of "good old boys" who dominated senior management for decades, largely to the exclusion of women and minorities.

As Lynch hammers at the district attorney's failure to win the "big ones," Garcetti responds by citing his office's felony-conviction rate of 93.6%, claiming it's proof of his able stewardship. The claim is disingenuous. Garcetti's predecessor, Ira Reiner, had a nearly identical conviction rate, as did Reiner's predecessor, Robert Philibosian, as did Philibosian's predecessor, John Van de Kamp, as did Van de Kamp's predecessor, Joe Bush, and as did Bush's predecessor, Evelle Younger.

If Wile E. Coyote were elected district attorney, his office's felony-conviction rate would be around 93%, which is, coincidentally, the national average for prosecution offices. The deputy district attorneys who do the grunt trial work are professionals, who win neither because of nor despite the leadership of their office. Wile E. Coyote could spend his four years fruitlessly chasing the Road Runner, and the career prosecutors would still achieve a 90%-plus conviction rate.

Lynch's weakness is the "vision thing." After a year of campaigning, the most that he has said about what kind of a D.A. he would be is: a) he won't be "political"; b) he will trust the judgment of his subordinates; c) he will develop consistent prosecutorial policies, and d) he will win the "big ones."

Yet, in comparing the two candidates, a larger question is overlooked. The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office is the largest law firm in the United States, public or private. With more than a thousand lawyers, a virtual guarantee of national name recognition and a strong leg up in any state attorney-general race, even gubernatorial, why didn't some congressman, assemblyman, state senator or high-profile legal eagle take Garcetti on? The incumbent was certainly vulnerable: two of three voters rejected him in the primary.

Because there is a strong suspicion that the job may not be worth the grief that accompanies it.

Other than the county assessor, the sheriff and Superior Court judges, the district attorney is the only public official required to run countywide. Los Angeles County is home to more than 10 million people; it encompasses about 2,000 square miles. The district attorney makes policy for Lancaster and downtown Los Angeles, which have about as much in common as Peoria and Chicago.

Running countywide, moreover, is the equivalent of mounting a U.S. Senate race in most other states. Indeed, the county's population exceeds that of 42 states. A prospective senator can count on some support from labor, big business, lobbyists and special-interest groups of wealthy individuals, who all have a stake in a senator's future votes. The only valuable commodities a potential district attorney has to offer are honesty, fairness, stability, diligence and managerial skill. So while local industrial polluters, gambling interests, liquor dispensers and corporate bigwigs have something to gain from backing a potential federal, state or local legislator, accepting money from the same interests would be political suicide for a potential district attorney. In fact, assuming the best person wins, public policy would require the new district attorney to prosecute the same polluters, liquor-law violators, etc. whose money is necessary to mount an effective campaign.

Once elected, a new D.A. will receive only the briefest of honeymoons from the in-house union, the Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys, whose members have not had a raise in years. As might be expected from a combative group of lawyers, the boss' decisions will be second-guessed the instant he makes one.

Even if some later-day Cincinnatus were willing to run for the office and administer it effectively without fanfare, who in his or her right mind would be willing to spend a couple million dollars for a job that pays $121,000 a year? While Younger and Van de Kamp did move up to state attorney general and eventually challenged for governor, the last two incumbents, Philibosian and Reiner, were unceremoniously dumped by the voters and sent into political oblivion, ironically to be resurrected as highly paid TV commentators criticizing Garcetti's performance in Simpson and the Reginald O. Denny cases.

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