Los Angeles 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 on Friday. He was previously the first Filipino American to serve in the state Assembly when he was elected in 2012 representing an East Bay Area district that also includes Oakland and San Leandro.
“Assemblyman Bonta will bring his passion for justice and his concern about people to every aspect of this important job,” Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, a Democrat, said during the floor debate before the 29-6 confirmation vote.
Bonta was emotional as he thanked his colleagues in the Assembly, where the vote was 62-0.
“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.”
The veteran lawmaker brings with him a legislative record of pushing for significant changes to the criminal justice system that include proposals to end to cash bail in many cases and abolish the death penalty, and a passed 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 a confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
“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 Joe 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.
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.
“Obviously police reform and restorative justice are needed more than ever,” Atkins said during the confirmation hearing.
Democratic Assemblyman Reggie Jones Sawyer cited recent fatal police shootings in arguing that Bonta will 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 is “one of the most important things the attorney general will do.”
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.”
GOP Assemblyman Tom Lackey questioned Bonta’s decision to author a bill ending cash bail for many crimes after state voters rejected another bail reform law last year, and his backing of the governor’s moratorium on executions although voters have upheld the death penalty.
“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 contains 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.
Bonta said he recognizes that as the state’s top attorney he has an obligation to act consistently with the state Constitution, but said he will also “identify a proper pathway for reform that is consistent with my responsibility and my duties.”
The former assemblyman said he also supports consideration of ideas including changing immunity laws for police officers and decertifying those who engage in misconduct so they are not fired from one job but hired by another law enforcement agency.
Bonta told lawmakers that he is 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.
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 Association.
“We know we can’t stop him,” Peredes 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 and Shannon Grove abstained from the vote after peppering Bonta with questions on state gun laws that he has supported.
Grove said some of the laws have been onerous to law-abiding gun owners while criminals continue to commit violence.
“They are just going to hurt or restrict law-abiding citizens,” Grove told Bonta.
Bonta, who as attorney general will have to defend several gun laws being challenged in court by the NRA, said he supports “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.”
Bonta also assured Republican legislators that he will 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 position.
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.
At the county level, Bonta has also called for a mandate that prosecutors recuse themselves from investigating law enforcement misconduct if their election campaigns took 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.