Peeking into Kamala Harris’s Litigation Record as California’s Former Attorney General

In Courts, Litigation, Profiles by Adam Feldman1 Comment

Vice President Kamala Harris came into the national spotlight as Attorney General of California. In that role she helped prosecute thousands of criminal defendants. In fact, Harris was listed as counsel on over 9,000 criminal court opinions throughout her prosecutorial history in roles ranging from deputy district attorney to District Attorney to Attorney General.

The general breakdown of courts where Harris was listed as counsel on court opinions is as follows:

[this includes five U.S. Supreme Court cases and seven U.S. District Court decisions which are hardly visible at the bottom of the graph]

The bulk of Harris’ prosecutorial bandwidth was necessarily allotted to cases before the various California Courts of Appeals. There is no doubt though that she couldn’t possibly provide full oversight of each case. There are certain case types in which she had a more vested interest. One of these types is cases before the United States Supreme Court.

During this time Harris was also listed as counsel on five Supreme Court cases (in one case, Michigan v. EPA, Harris was one Attorney General among many listed as counsel for the state petitioners). Harris’ record in cases she was listed on that went before the United States Supreme Court is three to two with wins in Johnson v. Williams, Navarette v. California, and Davis v. Ayala, and losses in Michigan v. EPA and National Meat Association v. Harris.

Along with the prestige of the Court, another way we can gauge case importance after a case is decided is through citations to decisions. Savvy attorneys often know before a case is heard that the question of law is of generalized importance and thus expend more resources in case preparation. Citations plus the court type combined then give us a greater hint of where Harris may have directed her energy overseeing cases. Some, but not all of the United States Supreme Court cases were ones were also on the list of heavily cited decisions where Harris was listed as counsel. These most cited cases were:

Harris’ record for the party she helped represent in litigation in these cases is six wins to two losses with two decisions ruling in part for both parties. The wins were in Johnson v. Williams (US Supreme Court, Navarette v. California (US Supreme Court), Davis v. Ayala (US Supreme Court), People v. Clark (CA Supreme Court), People v. Vang (US Supreme Court), and People v. Tully (CA Supreme Court). Losses came in Wilkerson v. Wheeler (US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit) and Williams v. Paramo (US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit). The in-part rulings were in People v. Sanchez (CA Supreme Court) and Lemire v. California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation (US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit).

What follows are brief summaries of these ten decisions based on language from the decision themselves. The subject of the case is listed in parentheses next to the case name.

  1. Wilkerson v. Wheeler (Jury instruction)
    • “Adonai El-Shaddai (“El-Shaddai”) alleges that correctional officers used excessive force in restraining him while he was incarcerated at High Desert State Prison in California. El-Shaddai sued the officers and the prison librarian under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that they violated his federal constitutional rights.…if El-Shaddai’s testimony was credited by a jury, the jurors might have concluded that the officers did use excessive force, as El-Shaddai had not physically resisted. To level the playing field in a fair way required either not giving the instruction that he had resisted the officers, or giving an adequate explanation of the nature of his resistance consistent with his testimony. We hold that the challenged instruction was misleading and that there was resulting prejudice.”
  2. Johnson v. Williams (Presenting claims to lower courts)
    • “The possibility that the California Court of Appeal had simply overlooked Williams’ Sixth Amendment claim apparently did not occur to anyone until that issue was raised by two judges during the oral argument in the Ninth Circuit. See 646 F.3d, at 638, n. 7. Williams presumably knows her case better than anyone else, and the fact that she does not appear to have thought that there was an oversight makes such a mistake most improbable.”
  3. Navarette v. California (Search and seizure)
    • “After a 911 caller reported that a vehicle had run her off the road, a police officer located the vehicle she identified during the call and executed a traffic stop… As the two officers approached the truck, they smelled marijuana. A search of the truck bed revealed 30 pounds of marijuana. The officers arrested the driver, petitioner Lorenzo Prado Navarette, and the passenger, petitioner José Prado Navarette…Petitioners moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment because the officer lacked reasonable suspicion of criminal activity…Under the totality of the circumstances, we find the indicia of reliability in this case sufficient to provide the officer with reasonable suspicion that the driver of the reported vehicle had run another vehicle off the road. That made it reasonable under the circumstances for the officer to execute a traffic stop.”
  4. People v. Sanchez (Expert witness)
    • “Santa Ana Police Detective David Stow testified for the prosecution as a gang expert…Stow admitted he had never met defendant. He was not present when defendant was given the STEP notice, or during any of defendant’s other police contacts. Stow’s knowledge of the two shootings, as well as the 2009 garage incident, was derived from police reports…Under these circumstances, we cannot conclude that admission of Stow’s testimony relating the case-specific statements concerning defendant’s gang affiliation was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt…The true findings on the street gang enhancements are reversed.”
  5. Davis v. Ayala (Jury selection/ death penalty)
    • “[Examining the] procedure used by the trial judge in ruling on Ayala’s objections under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986), to some of the prosecution’s peremptory challenges of prospective jurors…The trial judge allowed the prosecutor to explain the basis for those strikes outside the presence of the defense so as not to disclose trial strategy. On direct appeal, the California Supreme Court found that if this procedure violated any federal constitutional right, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The Ninth Circuit, however, held that the error was harmful.”
  6. People v. Clark (Trial error)
    • “After a jury found Royal Clark competent to stand trial, another jury convicted him of the first degree murder… Defendant asserts finally that even if none of the individual errors at the guilt, sanity, and penalty phases requires reversal, the cumulative prejudicial effect of the errors undermined the fairness and reliability of all phases of trial and requires reversal of the entire judgment. We have concluded, or assumed for argument, that six instances of nonprejudicial error occurred during the course of defendant’s trial. (See ante, pts. II.D.2., II.D.4., II.D.5., II.G.2., II.K.4. & II.M.) Given the strong evidence of defendant’s guilt of first degree murder and the aggravating circumstances attending that crime, we further conclude that none of the trial court’s missteps amounted to substantial error and there was no prejudicial cumulative effect warranting reversal.”
  7. Lemire v. California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation (Trial error)
    • “This action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 arises from the apparent suicide of an inmate in the California prison system, Robert St. Jovite. The estate, parents, and daughter of the deceased prisoner seek to recover damages for alleged violations of the Eighth Amendment, based on St. Jovite’s right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, and the Fourteenth Amendment, based on the family’s substantive due process right of familial association… We also hold that the district court erred in granting summary judgment with respect to Plaintiffs’ claims based on the failure to administer CPR by Defendants Officer Rebecca Cahoon and Officer Chris Holliday. We conclude that there is a triable issue of fact as to whether Defendants Cahoon and Holliday were deliberately indifferent to St. Jovite’s potentially serious medical need when they first arrived at his cell.”
  8. Williams v. Paramo (Trial error)
    • “In this appeal, we decide whether the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) requires a prisoner who is otherwise barred from proceeding in forma pauperis under its “three strikes” provision to show that she faces an imminent danger on appeal when a showing of such danger has already been made before the district court. We conclude that it does, but that there is a presumption of continuing danger and that Williams has accordingly satisfied the statutory requirement. We also conclude that the district court erred in dismissing Williams’s suit for failure to exhaust her administrative remedies.”
  9. People v. Vang (Expert witness)
    • “An expert witness testified about whether a crime was gang related. The Court of Appeal held that the trial court erred in permitting the expert to respond to hypothetical questions the prosecutor asked because the questions closely tracked the evidence in a manner that was only thinly disguised. We disagree that the trial court erred. It is required, not prohibited, that hypothetical questions be based on the evidence. The questioner is not required to disguise the fact the questions are based on that evidence.”
  10. People v. Tully (Trial error / death penalty)
    • “Shirley Olsson, a 59-year-old nurse at the Livermore Veterans Administration medical center, was brutally murdered sometime in the night or early morning hours of July 24 to 25, 1986… A jury convicted defendant as charged and found true the special circumstance and weapon allegations. It then returned a verdict of death, which the trial court declined to modify. This appeal is automatic.”

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