Five civil rights organizations have asked a California appeals court to block the efforts of three county district attorneys to lift stays of execution agreed to by the state as part of a federal-court settlement of death-row prisoners’ challenge to California’s lethal-injection protocol. [UPDATE: On March 9, 2021, the First District Court of Appeals dismissed the groups’ lawsuit.]

On March 5, 2021, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement, Riverside All of Us Or None, Starting Over Inc., and Silicon Valley De-Bug filed a petition for writ of mandate or prohibition in California’s First District Court of Appeal to direct the district attorneys of San Bernardino, Riverside, and San Mateo counties “to refrain from interfering in federal prisoner civil rights litigation between people on death row and the State of California.” The organizations’ petition alleges that the DAs’ attempt to intervene in the federal lawsuit exceeds the limited authority California law affords county prosecutors.

“What the district attorneys of San Bernardino, Riverside and San Mateo are doing is a brazen overreach,” said Emi MacLean, a senior attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “These DAs are rogue actors who seek to ignore the Constitution and create their own rules. Their lawlessness cannot stand.”

California death-row prisoners filed suit in 2006 challenging the state’s lethal-injection protocol. In 2020, in the wake of the execution moratorium announced by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2019, the prisoners and the state came to a stipulated resolution under which the litigation is on hold as long as the moratorium is in place. Before the resolution was reached, the district attorneys for San Bernardino, Riverside, and San Mateo counties sought to intervene in the litigation, arguing that the California Attorney General was not adequately representing their interests. A federal district court denied their motion. In an appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the DAs explicitly stated that they are seeking to overturn the resolution reached by the prisoners and the state in order to expedite the execution of death-sentenced prisoners.

The petition from the civil rights organizations argues that the DAs are overstepping their authority, in violation of state court rulings that have repeatedly declared thar county prosecutors may not intervene in civil litigation without express permission from the legislature. “No court has permitted district attorneys to participate in a federal civil rights lawsuit between prisoners and state authorities,” the petition says, “let alone take positions contrary to those of the Governor (the supreme authority on executive actions) and the Attorney General (the sole legal representative of state entities).”

MacLean told The Press-Enterprise, “They want to have a say in expediting death sentences. It’s actually a violation of state law for prosecutors to have this role.” Vonya Quarles, executive director of Starting Over Inc., said in a statement, “It’s also a question of our humanity — no DA should be permitted to overrule the governor in a bloodthirsty quest for executions.”

The District Attorneys argue that they have a right to pursue the execution of people sentenced to death in their jurisdictions. “We have people who have completed all of their appeals, and all we’re waiting for is the completion of this lawsuit,” said San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen M. Wagstaffe. “We just want to be able to weigh in and intervene. The attorney general has taken their position on it. We just feel it needs to be pressed a little harder.” Wagstaffe asserted that intervention is necessary to “seek closure” in death-penalty cases. “This sort of standing in quicksand, going nowhere, that to me is a disservice to the people and disservice to the families of the victims,” he said.

MacLean called the DAs attempt to intervene an unlawful waste of taxpayer money. “Right now there’s a big question about the role of district attorneys in the mass incarceration we see around us and about how our justice system should operate,” MacLean said. The DAs’ intervention in the federal suit, the petition says, “is improper. The DAs are acting outside of their constitutional and statutory authority to challenge the negotiated resolution of a dispute over the constitutionality of California’s method of execution.”


Nicholas Iovino, DAs Accused of Illegally Interfering in California Death Penalty Litigation, Courthouse News, March 5, 2021; Joe Nelson, ACLU sues Riverside, San Bernardino coun­ty DAs over death penal­ty lit­i­ga­tion, The Press-Enterprise, March 8, 2021; Aldo Toledo, ACLU suing San Mateo County DA to stop efforts to rein­state the death penal­ty, The Mercury News, March 92021

Read the peti­tion from the civ­il rights organizations.