Tuesday, February 10, 2004
D’Agostino Files Federal Suit to Unseat City Attorney Delgadillo
Veteran Civil Rights Attorney Yagman Is Representing Third Place Finisher in 2001 Balloting
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
Deputy District Attorney Lea Purwin D’Agostino, who finished third in the race for city attorney in 2001, yesterday filed suit in federal court seeking to unseat City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo.
D’Agostino, represented by Venice attorney Stephen Yagman, contends in the suit her civil rights were violated when city officials certified Delgadillo the winner despite the fact his State Bar membership was inactive between Jan. 1, 1995 and July 1, 1999. Sec. 270 of the City Charter mandates that the City Attorney “must be qualified to practice in all the courts of the state, and must have been so qualified for at least five years immediately preceding his or here election.”
Questions about Delgadillo’s qualifications were raised in a Jan. 9 column in the MetNews. Since late January, deputy public defenders have been demurring to misdemeanor complaints filed by Delgadillo’s office, contending he lacks authority to bring the prosecutions.
Los Angeles Superior Court judges have uniformly overruled the demurrers, but without reaching the merits of the challenge to Delgadillo’s qualifications.
D’Agostino declined to comment yesterday on her suit, referring inquiries to Yagman, who declared:
“Ms. D’Agostino had a right to be city attorney since she got the highest number of votes among qualified candidates.”
Then-City Councilman Michael Feuer, who finished first in the voting and lost to Delgadillo in a runoff, also had a period of inactive membership. Feuer was on voluntary inactive status between Jan. 1, 1995 and Jan. 19, 1999.
Yagman conceded that either Delgadillo or Feuer could have become eligible to appear in court by paying full bar dues instead of the reduced fees charged to inactive members, but argued that did not make them “qualified” within the meaning of the charter provision.
“It’s not merely a matter of paying more or less dues,” Yagman said, asserting that the charter provision is intended to assure that the person elected city attorney has a “familiarity with state courts.” Inactive members are also not required to complete the continuing education requirements mandated for active practitioners, he noted.
“You don’t want somebody who isn’t a real lawyer representing the city,” Yagman said.
The federal court complaint alleges that Delgadillo and Feuer “intentionally concealed” their lack of qualifications during the campaign, and that D’Agostino was “ignorant of the aforementioned intentional concealments until in or about January, 2004.”
The suit names Delgadillo, City Clerk J. Michael Carey, and 14 current members of the Los Angeles City Council as defendants. It seeks damages under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 and an injunction “ordering Carey and the council member defendants to certify plaintiff to be City Attorney.”
Yagman said the 15th city councilman, Antonio Villaraigosa, was not named as a defendant because he and Yagman are friends.
“I don’t sue friends,” the attorney proclaimed.
Citing the rulings on the demurrers, Eric Moses, a spokesman for Delgadillo’s office, said:
“This subject has been decided in more than 2,000 cases in Rocky’s favor, and Rocky is continuing to fight crime every day and is working hard to continue the dramatic reductions in the city’s liability payouts.”
In opposing the demurrers, deputy city attorneys have argued both that quo warranto provides the exclusive means for mounting a challenge to an official’s right to hold office and that any deficiency in Delgadillo’s qualifications does not provide a ground for demurrer since it does not appear on the face of the accusatory pleading.
An action in quo warranto can be brought either by the state attorney general or, with his acquiescence, by an individual. Attorney General Bill Lockyer has said he has no plans to initiate a quo warranto proceeding.
Yagman said the exclusivity of the quo warranto remedy would not be a bar to D’Agostino’s federal civil rights action. Requiring D’Agostino to seek Lockyer’s authorization to launch a quo warranto proceeding would amount to an invalid state-mandated “precondition” for asserting her civil rights, the veteran litigator asserted.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company