Congressman is a top contender for the role, but immigrant groups and criminal justice advocates say his record should disqualify him
As the lead prosecutor in Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, Adam Schiff, the representative from southern California, became a household name, an icon of the anti-Trump resistance, and a rising star in the Democratic party.
A year on, the congressman looks increasingly well positioned to be appointed as California’s next attorney general. But in Schiff’s home district, criminal justice and immigrant rights advocates say that his record as state senator and congressman, authoring legislation to increase the criminalization and incarceration of Black and brown Californians, should disqualify him from holding the position.
“There’s this real disconnect,” said Jody Armour, a University of Southern California law professor who studies the intersection of race and legal decision making. “The country knows Schiff as sort of an icon. Here in California, we know him as someone who was, in many ways, one of the chief architects of mass incarceration.”
Schiff has reportedly been lobbying Governor Gavin Newsom for the attorney general spot that will open up if the US Senate confirms Xavier Becerra as the health and human services secretary later this week. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has given her blessings, and reportedly even a personal endorsement.
Schiff, 60, began his career at a US district court in California, first as a law clerk and eventually as an assistant US attorney, rising to prominence for prosecuting the case against a former FBI agent convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.
He was elected to the California state senate in 1996, and four years later moved to the US House of Representatives. There, he served as the chair of the powerful intelligence committee, becoming one of Pelosi’s closest confidants.
As the lead impeachment manager pursuing Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, Schiff’s fiery speeches gained him lavish praise from liberals, begrudging recognition from conservatives and $41m in campaign funds last election cycle.
Schiff’s star power, his powerful allies in the Democratic party and fundraising prowess have set him up as a top contender for attorney general.
‘Tough on crime’ record
California voters elect their top prosecutor every four years, but Becerra will be leaving his seat with a year of his term left – leaving it to Newsom to find a replacement until the next election. From there, Schiff could be in a better position than he currently is to run for US Senate, or even governor in the future.
In recent years, and especially under Donald Trump, the California attorney general has become a national figure. Becerra launched more than 100 lawsuits against the previous administration, successfully sueing to block policies that would strong-arm local law enforcement to cooperate with immigration authorities, insert a question about immigration status into the US census, or end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (Daca) program, which gives temporary protection to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children.
Critics say Schiff’s appointment would run counter to the political progress on police reform and criminal justice made last year amid nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd. Armour, along with a number of academics, activists and advocates in California, have asked Newsom to appoint someone else. “One person alone is not responsible for California’s incarceration crisis. But Schiff stands out for his extreme punitiveness,” they wrote in a public letter.
They pointed at Schiff’s legislative proposals and votes in the California senate in the late 1990s, which were in line with the “tough on crime” attitude of politicians in that era. Schiff authored several bills to toughen up the criminal justice system and immigration enforcement, including a proposal that would have expanded the three strikes law, one that would have allowed 14-year-olds to be tried as adults, and a bill to create juvenile “boot camps” for children who commit crimes while at school. On immigration, he authored a bill that would have made the hiring of an undocumented immigrant a crime punishable with jail time.
Many of the most punitive criminal justice bills Schiff introduced never became law. They failed to get enough support in the legislature or were vetoed by both Republican and Democratic governors.
More recently, as a US representative,Schiff sided with Republicans in 2017 to support the Thin Blue Line Act, which would have altered the federal criminal code to add the targeting or killing of a law enforcement officer to the list of offenses that could be sentenced with the federal death penalty. The law was criticized by civil rights organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and it ran counter to policies espoused by Newsom, who issued an executive order to halt executions in California in 2019.
The discrepancy between Schiff’s record and California’s priorities are noteworthy, at a moment when the state attorney general will serve as a key player in debates around police accountability, criminal justice reform and immigration. Under new California law, the state’s attorney general will take on the role of investigating all deadly police shootings of unarmed civilians. And the state is continuing to challenge Trump-era policies that restricted immigrant rights.
In June, Schiff did disavow Jackie Lacey, the former Los Angeles district attorney who faced fierce backlash from the Black Lives Matter movement for her failure to prosecute police violence. “This is a rare time in our nation’s history. We have a responsibility to make profound changes to end systemic racism and reform criminal justice,” Schiff said.
Schiff’s office did not respond to the Guardian’s request for response to the concerns detailed in advocates’ letter to the governor. The congressman has repeatedly brushed off questions about his attorney general ambitions in national news interviews.
But Armour said he wished Schiff would explicitly reckon with his record, much like Biden and Kamala Harris – herself a former California attorney general – did in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.
Newsom meanwhile has remained secretive about who his final pick will be. Other top contenders include Rob Bonta, an assembly member representing Oakland who has been endorsed by the Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, and Diane Becton, the Contra Costa county district attorney.