Diana Becton is the first African-American and the first woman to be the Contra Costa District Attorney
Every four years, the country is up in arms over the presidential election. The shiny seat of executive power captivates the populace in bread and circuses. In turn, it’s not uncommon to lose sight of local elections that also directly impact community life.
To an observer, it may appear that a judge, costumed in regal robes and authority, is the most powerful person in the justice system. In reality, the elected District Attorney decides whether criminals are charged, set free, or can plea guilty. They have widespread discretion regarding this process, and there is little oversight.
On September 12, Diana Becton was chosen by the Board of Supervisors as Interim DA to fill the vacated seat of Mark Peterson.
Peterson resigned in disgrace after being charged for 12 counts of felony perjury and a one count of felony grand theft. The allegations stem from his campaign disclosures from 2012 to 2015, when he used $66,000 in campaign funds to buy personal items.
Since then, the Board of Supervisors has been examining candidates for the spot. In the initial vote, the Board was split 3-2, between Becton and Deputy District Attorney Paul Graves. After the smoke cleared, the Board then voted unanimously to appoint Becton.
Becton has been a judge in Contra Costa since 1995, where she presided until now. She served as Presiding Judge of the Superior Court for the First District Court of Appeals. Before that, she was a lawyer at her own firm.
In addition to adjudicating for over 22 years, Becton was the immediate past President of the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ) and the Chair of the State Bar Council on Access and Fairness. Her numerous leadership roles were a key factor that put her above the other candidates in the Board’s view.
Becton championed diversity as President of the NAWJ. The organization is the leading advocacy for female jurists. The organization has seen a huge growth in women in the judiciary. “At the time [NAWJ was founded] they called around with the help of their assistants to survey courts all over the country to find women — and it was a difficult time for women in law. Many jurisdictions said, ‘No, we don’t have any of those here.’ But they were able to eventually find 100 women and they convened their first conference in Los Angeles, California,” says Becton.
The enduring legacy has lead to NAWJ pioneering programs such as the Color of Justice, which encourages minorities to pursue a legal career, or a human trafficking program for judges.
Becton is the first woman and the first African-American to serve as Contra Costa’s DA. Some have suggested that the office has a history of discouraging diversity. Patrick Vanier, Santa Clara Deputy District Attorney and Candidate for Contra Costa DA told the Tribune that Peterson’s office “ has not been a culturally competent, has been very reactive to issues instead of proactive, has not recognized the importance of using [diversity].” Many in the county have high hopes for a new wave of diversity in the DA’s office.
As soon was Becton was sworn in, she resigned the NAWJ presidency, in order to “focus full time on the District Attorney’s office.” Now in office, she hopes to bring positive change by increasing the transparency and fairness of the office.
One of her primary concerns is the lack of community outreach, which she hopes to solve by first ”holding DA forums … actually going into the community in [the] first three months or so, to listen to the concerns and the needs of the people in our county. And secondly, to report to them on what [the DA’s Office is] doing.”
Becton is not without faults, however. In her DA application, an anonymous letter found glaring instances of plagiarism from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) bail reform letter published in the New York Times, sentences from the UC Davis Law Review, the SF District Attorney’s website and the Juvenile Justice Exchange.
Devoid of any irony, Becton wrote herself, “A Japanese proverb says ‘The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour.’ It is imperative that the next District Attorney of Contra Costa County work to restore public trust in the office.” Some allege that the county is substituting a perjurer with a plagiarist
At the Board meeting to finalize the appointment process, Becton told the Board, “I own the mistake.”
As East Bay Times journalist Daniel Borenstein notes, she goes on to defend her mistake by telling the public that one of the authors had said it was OK to use their material,. but fails acknowledge that she essentially lied to the public.
Supporters of the newly sworn in DA assert that this infraction is nothing compared to her 22 years of experience on the branch. Becton’s legal career has been largely free of criticism and controversy. In her application, she describes herself at the height of her judicial career, adjudicating an intriguing case in which the defendant, amped up on ecstasy, killed his best friend.
According to Becton, the defendant testified at trial claiming self-defense.
“The case was unique because in a prior case, the defendant was charged with the homicide of a childhood friend…and the jury found the defendant not guilty,” said Becton. “It was a high profile case…The court and the jury had to sort through many complex legal issues involving the admissibility of evidence, attorney misconduct, and impeachment of witnesses. There was a delicate balance considering the defendant’s rights, and the probative value, versus the prejudice and materiality of the evidence. There were days of pre-trial motions and rulings, inflammatory photographs, as well as crime scene photos, and ‘in life’ photographs.”
Becton also described difficulties with arranging methods of transport for the individuals in the courtroom, as well as managing the defendant. Eventually, the jury found the defendant guilty.
Becton has plans to combat the unjust bail system, to reduce recidivism and increase community outreach. Regardless, it’s crucial to observe the steps the DA’s office takes before the 2018 election.
Becton plans to run again:
“I think anyone who assumes this office is expected that you will run, but right now all of my time is focused on being the best district attorney that I can be.”
But she is sure to face challenges from many, including Patrick Vanier and Paul Graves. Away from the national scale, the most important 2018 election starts now.