High Court Rejects L.A. Bid to Block JDL Police Suit
An unusual bid by the City of Los Angeles to invoke the “state secrets” doctrine to block a civil rights lawsuit brought against police officials by the Jewish Defense League was rejected Thursday by the California Supreme Court.
The justices, without dissent, let stand a ruling last March by the state Court of Appeal that concluded there was no legal basis to create the sweeping defense for local authorities.
The action cleared the way for trial in a damage suit brought by the JDL alleging that an undercover officer for the Los Angeles Police Department infiltrated the group and sought to provoke members to commit a bombing and other violent acts.
Attorneys for the city said that a trial would inevitably result in the disclosure of information that would compromise local, state, national and even international intelligence sources and security interests.
They contended that the suit should be barred on grounds that it would force the release of “state secrets.” In some cases, courts have recognized the need for secrecy to enable federal authorities to protect national security.
City officials expressed dismay Thursday with the justices’ refusal to hear the case and said it was doubtful that the action could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. “We’re disappointed and feel the court should have granted review,” said Deputy City Atty. Linda K. Lefkowitz.
She added, however, that the city was still free to cite other provisions of state law to try to block disclosure of particular items of information during a trial.
Thursday’s action was praised by Roger Jon Diamond of Pacific Palisades, one of the attorneys representing the JDL and its regional director, Irving David Rubin, in the case.
“We’re very encouraged and pleased, particularly because the court was unanimous,” Diamond said. “We’ll press ahead as soon as we can. We’re anxious to have the matter heard.”
Diamond acknowledged that in view of the city’s concerns, a settlement in the case remained possible. “A settlement’s always a possibility,” he said, “but it would have to be acceptable to the JDL and Mr. Rubin.”
The suit, naming Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and other officials as defendants, claimed that Los Angeles Police Officer Larry Winston infiltrated the organization from 1979 to 1984 and sought to disrupt its activities in violation of its members’ constitutional rights.
The suit did not challenge the right of the Police Department to infiltrate, but did contend that the agent’s actions--such as allegedly urging the bombing of the presidential campaign office of the Rev. Jesse Jackson--violated guidelines approved in the settlement of a previous case brought against a since-disbanded police intelligence unit.
The city countered that the JDL suit would force it to answer questions and provide information that could jeopardize worldwide law enforcement intelligence networks. If such suits were allowed to proceed, the city said, similar court actions might be initiated by terrorists, drug dealers and organized crime figures seeking to learn what police know about their activities.
City officials, refusing even to confirm or deny Winston’s existence, declined to produce information sought by the plaintiffs and sought dismissal of the case before trial.
After closed-door hearings on the issue, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David M. Rothman agreed the case should be dropped, finding that the suit was “contrary to the public interest” because it would force the disclosure of information that would compromise local, national and
international law enforcement.
But the state Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Justice Leon Thompson, overturned the ruling. The appeal court found that the “state secrets” privilege could be asserted only by the federal government.
The Court of Appeal also said it found the city’s claim of a threat to national and local security “too tenuous” to justify dismissal of the suit, even if the city could legally assert the privilege.
The city’s subsequent petition for review to the state Supreme Court was denied in a brief order, signed by Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas.