California files health-care law amicus brief

California Attorney General Kamala Harris on Monday filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review whether for-profit businesses may claim religious exemptions from the national health-care law’s requirement that employee health plans cover birth control.

The brief urges the high court to hear Kathleen Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., and to overturn a lower court’s ruling that would allow two for-profit corporations to avoid full compliance with the law. The Obama Administration sought the court’s review last month.

“Access to contraceptive services is critical to the health of women and infants; women’s economic and social wellbeing; and women’s opportunities to participate fully in society,” the brief says. It also argues that a lower court’s determination that for-profit corporations may assert religious exemptions to certain laws could interfere with enforcement of other important regulations that protect public safety, civil rights, social welfare, housing, employment and public health.

“The freedom of individuals to exercise the religion of their choosing is one of the most important values in our society, as reflected by its enshrinement in the federal Constitution,” the brief says. “The federal government’s contraceptive coverage regulations under ACA respect that freedom through inclusion of appropriate exemptions, while also advancing the similarly compelling interests in public health and gender equality in access to health care. The court of appeals’ decision would upset that balance and threaten far-reaching impacts on the States beyond the issues presented by this action.”

Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington all joined in California’s brief, which addresses a ruling issued in June by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.


Money matchups: Other statewide offices

My article in today’s editions discussed fundraising by 2014 candidates for governor, treasurer, controller and secretary of state, but here are a few other California-wide details for your wonky pleasure.

Attorney General Kamala Harris raised $1.76 million in the first half of 2013, and had $2.7 million cash on hand as of June 30 with about $14,000 in outstanding debts. Harris won a very close race in 2010 – eight-tenths of a point, with rival Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley not conceding until three weeks after Election Day. As of now, however, nobody has filed a statement of intention to run against her in 2014.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom raised $392,000 in the first half of this year and spent about $148,000, leaving him with $1.3 million cash on hand as of June 30; his campaign also had almost $34,000 in outstanding debts at that time. But Newsom, at least for now, faces little competition. Santa Monica businessman Howard Leonhardt, an independent, has a campaign website but I don’t see that he’s filed any papers with the Secretary of State; Republican Robert Bates hasn’t filed any fundraising reports. Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Compton, has a committee open for the 2014 lieutenant governor race, but it has only $747; he’s amassing money for a 2016 state Senate bid. And Republican congressmen Jeff Denham and Kevin McCarthy still have 2014 lieutenant governor campaign committees open but aren’t expected to give up their House seats to run the race. Neither raised any money this year; Denham had $169,000 cash on hand and McCarthy had $72,000 as of June 30.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson raised $183,000 in the first half of this year and spent almost $99,000, leaving him with almost $133,000 cash on hand as of June 30; his campaign also had almost $11,000 in outstanding debts at that time. So far, nobody has filed a statement of intention to run against him in 2014.

Likewise, nobody has filed a statement of intention to challenge Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, who raised about $490,000 in the first half of this year and spent about $137,170, leaving him with almost $920,000 cash on hand as of June 30; his campaign also had about $10,000 in outstanding debts at that time.


State agents seize arsenal from felon

California’s program to find and seize firearms from those prohibited by law from owning them bore spectacular fruit this week as agents seized an illegal arsenal from a convicted felon.

Agents from the state Justice Department’s Bureau of Firearms seized the weapons late Tuesay from the Sacramento-area home of Britton Edward McFetridge, 37, who was on probation due to a 2010 conviction for felony battery with serious bodily injury. (He broke someone’s face.)

McFetridge's alleged arsenalDuring a probation search of his basement, the agents found eight unregistered assault weapons, one bolt-action rifle, eight large-capacity drum magazines, 100 other large-capacity magazines and more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition.

The weapons had been bought illegally in the last three to five years from private parties, according to the news release from Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office, and the magazines were illegally purchased online. Spokeswoman Michelle Gregory said the Armed Prohibited Persons System (APPS) flagged McFetridge because he had two other firearms registered to him, which agents were unable to locate.

McFetridge was arrested later Tuesday evening at his workplace – the Royal Peacock Tattoo Parlor, apparently – and was booked into the Sacramento County Jail on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm, possession of unregistered assault weapons, being a felon in possession of ammunition and large capacity magazines, and violation of probation.

The Sacramento Bee featured McFetridge in an article less than two weeks ago about tattoo artists donating their time for a charity marathon inking session.

APPS cross-references five databases to find people who legally purchased handguns and registered assault weapons since 1996 with people who are prohibited from owning or possessing firearms, including felons and the mentally ill. The system is the only one of its kind in the nation; agents collected 461 firearms and 23,080 rounds of ammunition statewide in the first four months of this year.

Gov. Jerry Brown last month signed into law SB 140, which diverted $24 million into the badly backlogged APPS program from a surplus of background-check fees.

Gun-rights and lobbying groups including the National Rifle Association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the California Rifle and Pistol Association had opposed the bill, saying lawful gun owners shouldn’t pay the cost of such a program; any surplus background-check fee money should be returned or lead to a reduction in the fee, they said.


DAs meet with Kamala Harris on gun enforcement

The Bay Area was heavily represented as California Attorney General Kamala Harris convened a group of county district attorneys Friday in Los Angeles to seek ways to reduce gun violence through enforcement of existing laws and prevention efforts.

Among the 11 DAs present were Nancy O’Malley of Alameda County, Jeff Rosen of Santa Clara County, Stephen Wagstaffe of San Mateo County, Edward Berberian of Marin County and Gary Lieberstein of Napa County; also present were the top prosecutors from Los Angeles, Merced, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and former Assemblyman Mike Feuer, a Democrat now seeking the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office.

“Gun violence continues to be a distressing and persistent problem in the United States, but California is leading the nation in smart, common-sense gun policies designed to protect our communities,” Harris said in a news release. “By working together, law enforcement and our state’s district attorneys can make a difference by improving enforcement and increasing prevention to help keep all Californians safe from gun violence.”

This “leadership group” will prepare a report of best practices that will serve as models for law enforcement in other communities to adopt, and as models for potential legislative reform.

Harris took the opportunity to once again tout the Armed Prohibited Persons System (APPS), which matches lists of handgun and assault-weapon owners to updated lists of convicts and mental-health patients so that firearms can be seized from those barred by law from owning them. Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed into law SB 140, which diverts $24 million into the badly backlogged APPS program from a surplus of background-check. In the first four months of 2013, agents have collected 461 firearms and 23,080 rounds of ammunition statewide.


California sues big bank over debt collections

California Attorney General Kamala Harris sued JPMorgan Chase & Co. today, claiming the bank used fraudulent and unlawful debt-collection practices about 100,000 Californians.

The lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court claims Chase engaged in widespread, illegal robo-signing, among other unlawful practices, to commit debt-collection abuses against credit-card borrowers over at least three years.

Kamala Harris“Chase abused the judicial process and engaged in serious misconduct against California credit card borrowers,” Harris said in a news release. “This enforcement action seeks to hold Chase accountable for systematically using illegal tactics to flood California’s courts with specious lawsuits against consumers. My office will demand a permanent halt to these practices and redress for borrowers who have been harmed.”

Chase spokesman Paul Hartwick said the bank would make no comment Thursday.

Chase from January 2008 through April 2011 filed thousands of debt collection lawsuits every month in California – including 469 such suits on one day alone. The lawsuit alleges that to keep up this pace, the bank “cut corners in the name of speed, cost savings, and their own convenience, providing only the thinnest veneer of legitimacy to their lawsuits.”

For example, Chase is accused of illegally “robo-signing” various court filings, including sworn documents, declarations, and verified complaints, without reviewing the relevant files or bank records or even reading the documents before signing.

The lawsuit also accuses the bank of failing to properly serve notice of debt collection lawsuits against consumers while claiming they had been served as required by law – a practice sometimes called “sewer service” which results in the consumers not even knowing they’ve been sued.

And the lawsuit claims Chase haphazardly assembled its official legal filings – for example, failing to redact consumers’ personal information in attachments to filings, potentially exposing them to identity theft and in violation of California law. Also, when asking courts to enter default judgments against consumers, Chase consistently swore under penalty of perjury that the consumers weren’t on active military duty when in fact the bank hadn’t actually checked.


State took 2,000 guns from illegal owners in 2012

California may have a sizeable leg up on other states in taking guns away from mentally ill people who are barred by law from owning them.

State Attorney General Kamala Harris said Tuesday that more than 2,000 firearms were seized in 2012 from people in California who were legally barred from possessing them, including mentally unstable people and those with active restraining orders. She noted the state has clear laws determining who can and can’t possess firearms based on their threat to public safety.

“Enforcing those laws is crucial because we have seen the terrible tragedies that occur when guns are in the wrong hands,” she said, referring to a mentally ill gunman’s spree Friday at a Connecticut elementary school that claimed 26 lives, including 20 children.

Harris said 33 state Department of Justice agents used its Armed Prohibited Persons System (APPS) database to identify convicted felons, people with active restraining orders, people determined to be mentally unstable and others barred from owning guns. Agents seized 2,033 firearms, 117,000 rounds of ammunition, and 11,072 illegal high-capacity magazines from Jan. 1 through Nov. 30, with most of the firearms seized during two six-week sweeps.

The first statewide sweep targeted people barred from gun ownership because of mental health issues, and the second focused on people with legally registered assault weapons who were later prohibited from owning them.

Harris last year sponsored SB 819, carried by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, to increase funding for the APPS program through the use of existing regulatory fees collected by gun dealers; the new law took effect at the start of this year.

The APPS database cross-references people who legally bought handguns and registered assault weapons since 1996 with people who are prohibited from owning or possessing firearms. APPS was launched in November 2006, and the first statewide sweep was conducted in 2007. California is the nation’s first and only state to have created such a database.