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Patt Morrison asks: Xavier Becerra, California's new attorney general and point man in its battle with Trump

Patt Morrison asks: Xavier Becerra, California's new attorney general and point man in its battle with Trump
Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) holds a press conference after being sworn in by Gov. Jerry Brown as the next attorney general of California at the State Capitol building in Sacramento on Jan. 24. (Los Angeles Times)

Longtime Democratic congressman Xavier Becerra has come home to California — and to a battle, one at least as big as any he's fought in Washington, D.C.  He was Gov. Jerry Brown's surprise appointment to fill the job of California attorney general, after Kamala Harris left the post when she was elected a United States senator. California has been in President Donald Trump's crosshairs. He told Fox News that "California in many ways is out of control," and that defunding "sanctuary cities" could be a "weapon" to bring them to heel.  He lost the state to Hillary Clinton by more than 4 million votes — many of which he claims, wrongly, were cast illegally. His immigration policies could restore widespread workplace sweeps. All of this has generated new states'-rights thinking, very different from the one more than a half-century ago, and as the chief lawyer for the nation's biggest state, Becerra is at its forefront.

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The 10th Amendment says "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Has that one taken on new significance for you?

Not new significance, but certainly significance because traditionally, we've seen the 10th Amendment used to try to keep people away from exercising their rights.  In this case we're trying to keep the federal government away from depriving people of their rights.

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And how can your office do that?

We will stand up and defend the people of the state of California from any intrusion that is unconstitutional by the federal government. So if the federal government would like to tell us how to perform our public safety requirements, we'll tell them, thanks but that's up to us. If they want to tell us how we should go about providing for the general welfare for the people of California, we'll tell them, thanks for the advice but that's up to us.

We have any number of areas where it seems like the new administration in Washington, D.C., has decided that it can tell the states best how to run the lives of their people.  We're going to be sure to let them know, you're welcome to help us, but that's up to us.

President Trump ordered that so-called "sanctuary cities" like Los Angeles be punished by withholding federal money, and he intends to carry out a mass deportation of undocumented immigrants.

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First, the role of immigration is one that is the province of the federal government, and I respect that, and recognize that we have a broken immigration system. We are prepared to work with the federal government to make sure that our country and our state operate in a reasonable way when it comes to immigration. On the second point, it's important to note that we pay federal taxes to the treasury in Washington, D.C., in a far greater amount than we ever get back, so we're not interested in being deprived of even more resources simply because the new administration may not like the way we are handling the affairs of the state of California. We respect what the federal government is entitled to do when it involves the issue of immigration, so long as they do it and abide by the Constitution of the United States.

As an Angeleno, you know that the LAPD issued Special Order 40 decades ago under Chief Daryl F. Gates, which said it is not the job of the LAPD to stop people and question their immigration status.

What we should be doing is letting law enforcement take care of public safety day to day. I think most of us would agree we don't have enough police patrolling our streets and getting to know the people in our neighborhoods. The last thing we need is for the federal government to say, Oh, by the way, can you take on the duties that are really things we should be doing?

So for all the different reasons, we have a right to say to the federal government, hands off.

How far do you think this is going to go?

That's really more up to the federal government. An executive order by the president of the United States is not a statute, it's not a law, it doesn't rise anywhere close to being like a law, and it certainly comes nowhere close to being similar to the Constitution.

So we're going to make sure California abides by federal law and abides by the Constitutions of the United States and California, but we're not required to abide by an edict by a president simply because the president says he wants us to do something.

Did any of this come up when Gov. Jerry Brown talked to you about taking the appointment as attorney general?

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There was no doubt that where we would head as a state was on the governor's mind when we discussed this. It just so happens I agreed with pretty much everything he wanted to raise with me. I know that the governor has made it very clear he's going to take a very impassioned stand in protecting all the gains that California has made.

We didn't become the sixth economic power in the world as a standalone state simply by sitting back and letting others do something for us. We're going to grow in our vitality and diversity. We're just not going to stop.

There are some in California, as you know, who think seceding would be a good idea. Standalone California  sounds good to them.

I'm not interested in watching California break up or break away. I just want to make sure that when we're doing something that's worked, that someone doesn't get in the way simply because they think they've got a better idea.  We have our warts and we continue to perfect some of the things that we've done that haven't been right, but I will tell you this — the sun does shine in California.

There's another area where as you know federal and state law are at loggerheads and that's legal marijuana. What plans are ramping up for defending that particular state law against federal policy?

Just remember, when it comes to marijuana, I think we're talking about two issues. One is — how can I put this? — progress. It's catching up with the times. Fifty years ago, no one would have expected any jurisdiction in the country to legalize marijuana. Today, we've realized it's better to regulate than criminalize marijuana use.

So California has moved in that direction; several states have moved in that direction. And I think you're going to continue to see the country move in that direction.

The second part is the one that California is going to help the rest of the county grapple with in the future and that is, how do you determine if someone is driving under the influence if they happen to have smoked some marijuana?  How do you make sure that whoever gets behind the wheel of a vehicle will be a safe driver?

Those kinds of things that we haven't tackled before because you can't measure impairment with marijuana the same way you measure impairment with alcohol. And just as we allow alcohol to be sold, we've come into the 21st century and announced that it's better to regulate marijuana than criminalize it.

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Even so, marijuana remains a schedule 1 drug as far as the DEA is concerned. What about the prospect of the federal government using California as an example and saying, Nope, you can't legalize this for medical or any other reasons?

The federal government has to catch up and get into the 21st century, first. Secondly, we have to make sure the federal government is helping us, not hindering us, when it comes to coming up with a good way to regulate it. Because the real work falls upon law enforcement to do this right, and we have to give them clear direction so they know what they're doing.

So it behooves the federal government to pull its head from underneath the sand and start to figure out how to do this the right way. Are they going to come in, descend on California because of this law? I don't think so, because they didn't do it to Colorado. They haven't done it to a few of the states that have moved in this direction.

There are far more important things to worry about than whether someone's smoking marijuana for medicinal purposes or not.

On pollution regulations, California's always been ahead of the curve. Even before there was a federal Environmental Protection Agency, California had emissions standards and other regulations. Now there's a question whether the federal government may pressure California to conform to the rest of the country, which could mean rolling back our standards.

The last thing I believe that the people of California and its forward-leaning leaders want is to have a race to the bottom where we decide we're not  going to not only enforce our environmental standards and push to have clean energy become the source of the next generation of good-paying jobs, but instead have us go back to the days when smog alerts were pervasive in the basin of Los Angeles, and when in San Bernardino you couldn't  see beyond your home because of all the smog that came from L.A.

So maybe in Washington, D.C., they don't get it. They don't realize that Californians have seen what a future of pollution would mean for kids. We're not interested in having our children grow up with asthma. We're not interested in having our eyes burn because of the smog. And we're not interested in people saying, No, I don't think I want to take my PhD and work in California because I hear it's really a difficult place to live with all the smog.

We're going to do what we need to do to keep our air clean and our water safe and I believe that the federal government can't stop us from moving in that direction. They may try to cause us some trouble but I think they'll find that it's better to work with us.

Have you been hearing from Californians about what they want you to do to be a firewall, as other Democratic attorneys general have cast themselves?

The beauty of social media! I am hearing all sorts of things from Californians, absolutely. They are expecting the state's leaders and their attorney general to stand up for them. As we say in Spanish, presente  — I am present.

What kind of tweets are you seeing?

"Don't let those executive orders hold you down … please protect the people who work hard for our country … don't let my neighbor be taken away … please don't let us roll back our gains on the environment" -- any number of things.

Think about it. So much of our economic sectors, whether it's the tech industry, healthcare, entertainment — they rely on the things we now take for granted: the cleaner air, the effort to deal with conservation of our water, with the treatment of immigrants in a dignified and respectful way.

Speaking of tweets, Donald Trump tweeted about possibly cutting off  federal funds after protests about a speaker at UC Berkeley turned violent.

There's a difference between a tweet and a law, and while I think all of us would agree that never in the exercise of free speech should you engage in violence to express that speech, Donald Trump should read the Constitution and start with the 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights, so he will understand why what he said is so offensive to those who believe in free speech.

Speeding up the death penalty is something 51% of Californians voted in favor of in the last election. What role is your office taking in that?

I can't say too much because it is in litigation and we are involved. We take very seriously when the people of the state of California vote a particular proposition into our laws, and we'll do everything we can to make sure the state of California moves forward respecting the will of the people. If the courts find the proposition constitutional, then it will be my job working with law enforcement and the leaders in the state to put the laws in place and make them work.

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