The Republican race for attorney general has so far consisted mostly of an ill-informed, ideologically driven dissection of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's approach to prosecuting criminals under California's three-strikes law. Cooley's critics, led by state Sen. Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) and former Chapman law school dean John Eastman, portray him as both rigid and softheaded on the law and suggest that he's coddling career criminals.
In fact, Cooley has adamantly supported three strikes — too adamantly for our taste, as it's a woefully blunt instrument that borrows a sentencing regime from the rules of baseball. In using the law, however, he has made a concession to decency: He rarely seeks a third strike when the offense being prosecuted is not a violent crime. That helps avoid some of the law's most draconian results — the petty thief, for instance, who winds up serving a 25-years-to-life sentence for stealing a batch of videotapes. Cooley does not absolutely preclude all such prosecutions; he merely requires prosecutors who want to bring a third strike in a nonviolent case to convince a supervisor that it is justified.
To Cooley's critics, this adds up to a weakness. Harman, who routinely describes his opponent as "liberal Steve Cooley," accuses him of having "led the effort to tear up" three strikes and of enabling "career criminals to commit additional heinous crimes and create more innocent victims." Eastman claims that Cooley believes "we should never be able to use a nonviolent crime as the third strike to put someone away."
Baloney. Those are deliberate mischaracterizations of Cooley's policy. And as for his being a liberal, well, we know liberals, and Steve Cooley's no liberal.
In our view, Cooley is too supportive of three strikes, too committed to the death penalty, too conventionally law-and-order to win our unbounded admiration. But he's also a dedicated public servant who has done a good job as district attorney since first winning the office in 2000. He has demonstrated a commitment to open government that is refreshing and not widely shared in county government. Those are sound reasons — ideology aside — for supporting Cooley for attorney general.
Eastman also brings intriguing credentials. He is an original thinker and constitutional scholar. He presents new ideas for how to organize and direct the attorney general's office, and he amassed an impressive record as Chapman's dean. Harman, on the other hand, seems to be running principally because he is termed out of his Senate seat.
Cooley wins our endorsement, not because we always agree with him but because we have come to admire and respect him.