Supreme Court speculation about Kamala Harris shadows Senate bid

Speculation that California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris could be on President Obama’s short list of possible nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court has reached a fever pitch — but don't fit her for a robe just yet.

The talk that Harris — simultaneously the first woman and African American to be elected to the statewide post — could fill the vacancy created by this weekend's unexpected death of Justice Antonin Scalia is just that, for the moment.

It's a line of thought that is coming mostly from media outlets and analysts offering commentary ahead of what is likely to be a deliberative process that will start in earnest when President Obama returns to Washington this week after spending several days in California.

Still, it's not hard to understand why court observers and the legal community would watch Harris, 51, the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica. She is a graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., and earned her law degree at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

Former Obama White House advisor David Axelrod mentioned the possibility of a Harris nomination on a weekend news show, and Harris’ name has popped up on hypothetical lists from the New York Times, Associated Press, USA Today, the National Law Journal and the wonky but well-regarded SCOTUSblog.

Harris has brushed aside the speculation, although questions about the issue will follow her during her ongoing campaign for U.S. Senate ahead of California's June 7 primary.

"While the attorney general is honored to be mentioned in these conversations, she's committed to her current job and continuing her fight for California families in the U.S. Senate," campaign spokesman Nathan Click said Monday.

The candidate herself doused the speculation at an appearance in San Jose on Tuesday. "I'm not putting my name out there," she said at the headquarters of the Service Employees International Union Local 521. "I am running for Senate."

Most describe Harris as a veteran prosecutor and astute, ambitious political leader. Harris also has been a strong Obama supporter since he was a U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois.

Harris' national profile got a boost when Obama gave her a speaking role at the Democratic National Convention in 2012. The headlines continued in 2013 when Obama apologized publicly for having described her as "the best-looking" attorney general in the country. 

For all her demographic and political strengths, Harris does not come from the judicial realm. She has staked out liberal positions on issues that would raise the ire of Republican Senate leaders who already have warned Obama to leave the nomination to the next president.

"Kamala Harris would be an unusual choice — most recent appointments have been federal court of appeals judges — but a plausible one," said Erwin Chemerinksy, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law. "However, there are so many plausible names. I doubt anyone has inside information so it is just all speculation."

Plus, Harris is the current front-runner to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, and she may not want to forgo the opportunity to represent Californians in Washington.  

Throughout her political career, Harris has articulated clear positions on many controversial, divisive issues that could come before the nation’s high court.

Harris favors the protection of abortion rights, an end to the federal ban on medical marijuana and a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. She backs major changes in the criminal justice system, in part to address racial disparities, including shorter sentences for low-level drug crimes and a shift in government funding from prisons to crime prevention.

As attorney general, Harris has taken actions conservatives would no doubt take issue with during a Senate confirmation hearing, should one ever occur:

-- She refused to defend Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that outlawed same-sex marriage in California until the U.S. Supreme Court found it unconstitutional.

-- Harris defended a state law that required members of public employee unions to help pay for collective bargaining. A case challenging those requirements — Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Assn. is pending in the Supreme Court and could yield a 4-4 decision in Scalia's absence.

-- Harris, who has been supported politically by the California Teachers Assn., appealed a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge’s ruling in the case of Vergara vs. California, which threw out the state's tenure process for grade school teachers.

-- Harris criticized a federal appeals court for rejecting Obama's executive actions on immigration, a case that is also pending before the Supreme Court.

When she was San Francisco district attorney, Harris was scrutinized for refusing to seek the death penalty against a gang member who in 2004 gunned down police Officer Isaac Espinoza. Harris stuck to her campaign promise never to pursue the death penalty.

Boxer, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, then-state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, all Democrats, criticized Harris' decision.

For more than a decade, she worked as a prosecutor in Alameda County and San Francisco, and tried cases involving charges of drunk driving, sex crimes, assault and homicide. Her transition to electoral politics began in 2003 during her successful campaign to unseat San Francisco Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan.

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Harris was elected attorney general in 2010, narrowly beating L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, a Republican. She was reelected in 2014 by a wide margin.

Her parents divorced when Harris was a toddler and her late mother, who was a breast cancer researcher at UC Berkeley, raised Harris and her sister, Maya, to be proud African American women during a tumultuous time in the United States. Harris was a student in the second class to integrate Berkeley's public schools in the late 1960s.

Her sister has served as advisor to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. 

phil.willon@latimes.com

Follow @philwillon on Twitter for the latest news on California politics

 

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Full coverage of Justice Scalia's death and the vacant Supreme Court seat

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

12:25 a.m.: This story was updated to include a mention of a Harris event Tuesday morning.

This story was originally published at 12:05 a.m.

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