Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, California’s top law enforcement officer, had little to say in July when an Orange County federal judge declared the state’s death penalty system unconstitutional.
Several weeks later, Harris announced that she would challenge the decision, but her reasoning was curious: The ruling, she said, “undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants.”
That she delayed making her views known — and then used a liberal justification to explain a response sought by conservatives — has fueled a perception that Harris is reluctant to stake out positions on controversial issues.
“There is a tension in her office between leaping and being a little bit careful about where you jump,” said consumer activist Jamie Court. “I do think that you have to leap in sometimes if you want to create big change.”
On the conservative side, Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation said Harris “hasn’t done anything really bad but also hasn’t been the vigorous leader California needs.… [Former Republican Atty. Gen.] Dan Lungren would have been out the next day denouncing the opinion and vowing to take it to the Supreme Court.”
Harris, 49, bristles at the suggestion that she is afraid to take stands.
“On the issue of same-sex marriage, my position was very clear,” Harris said in a recent interview. She was referring to her refusal to defend Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure limiting matrimony to one man and woman, which was struck down in court.
Aides characterize Harris as someone who is focused, detail-oriented and demands a lot of information before making up her mind.
“She definitely does not suffer from the disease of shooting first and asking later,” said Chief Deputy Atty. Gen. Nathan Barankin, the lead lawyer in her office. “She doesn’t like to react off the cuff or to think out loud in a public way.”
Some say that the Democrat — a career prosecutor who was formerly San Francisco’s elected district attorney — has been wise to use the power of her office cautiously.
“It is understandable that in her first term as attorney general she doesn’t want to be controversial,” said Robert Stern, who headed the former Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit group that studied politics and government. “She wants to build up lots of allies, as opposed to potential enemies.”
Possible political aspirations also might be helped by a go-slow approach. Harris faces near-certain reelection next week in her race against Republican Ron Gold, and she is considered a leading future candidate for the governor’s office or U.S. Senate. Some even have speculated about a possible presidential run or U.S. Supreme Court appointment.
Harris’ national profile got a boost when President Obama gave her a speaking role at the Democratic convention in 2012. She also made headlines last year when he apologized publicly for having described her as the “the best looking” attorney general in the country.
So far, Harris has refused to discuss her political future and says she is not taking reelection for granted.
During her time as attorney general, Harris has used the office to draw attention to transnational crime, recidivism and truancy. She also has created units to focus on cyber-crime and cyber-privacy.
In deciding to appeal the ruling against the death penalty, which excoriated the system for decades-long delays, Harris said she was moved by concern that appeals might be streamlined “at the expense of due process” — meaning the protection of inmates’ rights.
In his decision, however, U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney had not suggested that defendants’ protections should be curtailed. He pointed to a study that blamed logjams in the system on various factors.
Although Harris personally opposes the death penalty, her aides have emphasized that she would vigorously defend the law. If the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agrees with Carney, Harris then would have to decide whether to appeal to the Supreme Court. If she decided against an appeal, the death penalty in California would probably end.
“We will have to see what the court rules,” Harris said, without elaborating on her thinking.
She delighted death penalty supporters Wednesday by appointing Gerald Engler, a longtime assistant attorney general and former county prosecutor, to head the office’s criminal division. Scheidegger, a strong proponent of executions, called the choice “an out-of-the park home run.”
When she first ran for attorney general four years ago, Harris barely defeated former Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who had heavy backing from law enforcement. Today, police groups back Harris.
“She has not let her personal views undermine the constitutional role of the office,” said John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Assn., which has endorsed her. “She has been very accessible and she has a real problem-solving, analytical style.”
As of Sept. 30, her campaign had received $3.6 million from lawyers, unions, law enforcement, celebrities and businesses. She has since spent a large chunk on television advertisements in Southern California, where she is less known and where the exposure could help in a future race.
Gold has blasted her for failing to take a stand on the legalization of marijuana. He favors legalization, while Harris has not made up her mind.
“She does not take chances,” Gold said. “AG for her doesn’t mean ‘attorney general.’ It means ‘almost governor.’”
Harris attributes her reticence to a desire for more information. She said she wants to review Washington’s and Colorado’s experiences with legalization before deciding whether it would be good for California.
“It would be irresponsible for me as the chief law enforcement officer to take a position based on its popularity without thinking it would actually work,” Harris said.
She backed the legalization of marijuana for medical needs, but has done little to clarify the law or push for regulation, activists complain.
“She has been largely absent” from efforts in Sacramento to establish regulations, said Alex Kreit, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and author of a textbook on drug law. “It’s less about trying to be middle of the road and more about not rocking the boat.”
Harris said she has concentrated more on fighting methamphetamine distribution, which links overseas cartels to street gangs, than on marijuana law.
On gun legislation, “she hasn’t been the most active attorney general, but she has done some positive things,” said Julie Leftwich, legal director of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
For example, Harris asked a federal appeals court to overturn a ruling against San Diego County that made it easier statewide to carry concealed weapons in public. The attorney general’s office under Gov. Jerry Brown twice refused to help San Diego defend the gun permit regulations, according to Senior Deputy San Diego County Counsel James M. Chapin.
“I support the 2nd Amendment,” Harris said, “but I also support reasonable gun laws.”
Harris divides most of her time between her offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and makes it a point to understand problems from the victims’ viewpoint, her aides said.
During the mortgage crisis, she met with Californians who had lost their homes. She later introduced and won passage of a law to make it more difficult for banks to foreclose on homeowners. From time to time, she said, people approach her in the grocery store or on the sidewalk to thank her.
“That makes me get out of bed in the morning,” she said. “That is the stuff that gets me going.”
In her free time, Harris said, she exercises, devours recipes and cooks. She recently married a Los Angeles lawyer who also has an office in San Francisco.
Although her political career seems to be flourishing, Harris said she is not letting the great expectations about her future shape her actions.
“I don’t believe in flattery,” she said.