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Rob Bonta is confirmed as California attorney general — the first Filipino American to fill the role

Rob Bonta smiles for a portrait.
Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) has been confirmed to become California’s attorney general.
(Alexis Cuarezma / For The Times)

The state Legislature confirmed Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta as California attorney general on Thursday, backing the appointment of an advocate for criminal justice reform who told his colleagues in hearings this week that he would hold law enforcement accountable for excessive force and other misconduct.

Bonta, 49, will be the first Filipino American to serve as the state’s top cop when he takes the oath of office to head the Department of Justice at a ceremony as early as Friday. He was previously the first Filipino American to serve in the state Assembly when he was elected in 2012 to represent an east Bay Area district that includes Oakland and San Leandro.

“I think it is critical that we, California, have a progressive voice as attorney general, even more so as this nation moves to reevaluate our approach to public safety,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) moments after that house’s 62-0 bipartisan vote to approve the appointment. The Senate vote was 29-6, with Republicans in opposition or not voting.

Bonta was emotional as he thanked his colleagues in the Assembly.

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“I am extremely humbled, deeply appreciative and very, very honored,” Bonta said. “I am clear-eyed about the challenges that lie ahead for the state of California, the Department of Justice.”

Skeptics who say the American dream is no longer possible need only look at Rob Bonta, 49, who was chosen Wednesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom to be the next attorney general of California, columnist George Skelton writes.

The veteran lawmaker brings with him a legislative record of pushing for significant changes to the criminal justice system, including proposals to end cash bail in many cases and abolish the death penalty, as well as a law phasing out the use of private prisons and immigration detention centers.

“California DOJ must be an organization that infuses more justice, more humanity, more fairness and more safety into our institutions,” Bonta told the Senate Rules Committee during Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

“There are still too many who are wronged in California,” he added, noting those who are victims of human trafficking, corporate misconduct, hate crimes and “too many who are treated unfairly by the many broken parts of the criminal justice system and who deserve more justice, more humanity and a second chance.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom nominated Bonta for the job last month to fill the vacancy created when Xavier Becerra was appointed by President Biden to become U.S. Health and Human Services secretary. Newsom had been under pressure from Asian and Pacific Islander leaders who supported Bonta as the right person to address a recent increase of violence against Asian Americans. Last month, a white gunman in the Atlanta area allegedly killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent.

Tackling numerous outstanding tasks could make it more difficult for Rob Bonta to pursue his own ambitious criminal justice reform agenda in the coming months.

The Legislature confirmed Bonta’s appointment just two days after a jury convicted former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, of murdering George Floyd, a Black man, when he pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.

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“Obviously police reform and restorative justice are needed more than ever,” Senate Leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said during the confirmation hearing.

Assemblyman Reggie Jones Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) cited recent fatal police shootings in arguing that Bonta would have an important role to play in holding members of law enforcement accountable when they use excessive force.

“We will heavily rely on the attorney general to serve as a backstop and final arbiter in cases of abuse or misconduct by law enforcement,” Sawyer told Bonta. “Too many Californians die or have their lives forever altered by the actions of bad law enforcement officials.”

Bonta, a resident of Alameda in the Bay Area, said the creation of a new unit of investigators and prosecutors to investigate fatal police shootings of civilians was “one of the most important things the attorney general will do.”

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Bonta, a Democrat from Alameda who would be California’s first Filipino attorney general, said that he is focused on campaigning for election to the post if the Legislature confirms his appointment to fill out the remaining term after Xavier Becerra left to become U.S. Health and Human Services secretary in the Biden administration.

The new unit is mandated by legislation supported by Bonta that was signed into law last year.

“We’re in a racial justice reckoning and a reckoning on how we police,” he told lawmakers, adding that “we need to rebuild trust between law enforcement and communities.”

Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale), a retired California Highway Patrol sergeant, voted to confirm Bonta. But he questioned Bonta’s decision to author a bill ending cash bail for many crimes after state voters rejected another bail reform law last year, as well as his backing of the governor’s moratorium on executions although voters have upheld the death penalty.

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“How can Californians trust that you will respect their voices and not override them with your office?” Lackey asked.

Bonta said his new bail reform bill contained proposals that were not part of the law overturned by Proposition 25.

He called the death penalty “racist” and said it was not a crime deterrent.

“The death penalty in my view is inhumane,” he said.

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Bonta said he recognized that as the state’s top attorney he would have an obligation to act consistently with the state Constitution, but he said he would also “identify a proper pathway for reform that is consistent with my responsibility and my duties.”

The former assemblyman said he supported the consideration of ideas including changing immunity laws for police officers and also supported a bill decertifying those who engaged in misconduct so they were not fired from one job and then hired by another law enforcement agency.

Bonta told lawmakers he was also very concerned about a rise in hate crimes against members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

He was accompanied to the Senate confirmation hearing by his wife, Mialisa, who is running for his Assembly seat, as well as his parents, who worked for the United Farm Workers when Bonta was a child.

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Dozens of people testified in support of Bonta’s appointment, including labor and civil rights leaders and advocates for criminal justice reform.

His confirmation hearing drew opposition from Sam Paredes, executive director of the group Gun Owners of California, who also spoke on behalf of the National Rifle Assn.

“We know we can’t stop him,” Paredes told the Senate panel. “The history is that we have had a rather contentious relationship legislatively throughout his career with regards to gun control matters.”

Senate Republicans Patricia Bates of Laguna Niguel and Shannon Grove of Bakersfield abstained from the vote after peppering Bonta with questions on state gun laws that he has supported.

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Grove said some of the laws had been onerous to law-abiding gun owners while criminals continued to get firearms that were then used to commit violence.

“They are just going to hurt or restrict law-abiding citizens,” Grove told Bonta of new laws he supported.

Bonta, who as attorney general will have to defend several gun laws being challenged in court by the NRA, said he supported “common sense” gun safety laws to save lives.

“I have problems with kids being shot en masse in schools,” Bonta responded to Grove. “And I think it’s important that we see that as the problem that it is.”

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Bonta assured Republican legislators that he would work to reduce the persistent backlog of criminals who have guns that should have been confiscated.

More than four hours of confirmation hearings were held Wednesday at the Capitol by the Senate Rules Committee and the Assembly Special Committee on the Office of the Attorney General.

The position of state attorney general has an annual salary of $182,189, and Bonta faces a full plate of challenges in taking over the role.

As attorney general, Bonta will be in charge of implementing the bill he voted for last year that requires the state DOJ to investigate fatal police shootings of unarmed civilians. The attorney general’s office has estimated that law will require about 40 investigations each year with the office also prosecuting cases in which criminal wrongdoing is found.

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At the county level, Bonta has also called for a mandate that prosecutors recuse themselves from investigating law enforcement misconduct if their election campaigns have taken campaign contributions from law enforcement unions.

Born in Quezon City in the Philippines, Bonta was 2 months old when he immigrated to California with his parents, missionaries who became union organizers in the U.S.

He received a degree from Yale Law School. Bonta served as a deputy city attorney for San Francisco as well as a private attorney before his election to the Assembly.

Bonta faces a short turnaround before he must campaign to keep the post in the 2022 election. His Assembly reelection campaign has $2.3 million that he can put toward his first statewide campaign.

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VIDEO | 07:46
LA Times Today: California Attorney General Ron Bonta on his top priorities

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.


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