City Charter May Keep Top Contender Out of DA Race

It wasn't a lawyer who wrote "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — 'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning." That was Mark Twain, whose fashion sense redefined the term "white-shoe firm."

Still, wringing deeper meanings from the written word is a key element of lawyerin'. Case in point: A careful reading of the city charter suggests that a top contender for the position of San Francisco's district attorney might not be eligible for the gig.

As the city charter has it, "The District Attorney and Public Defender shall each be licensed to practice law in all courts of the State of California and shall have been so licensed for at least five years next preceding his or her election." Based on the interpretation of the phrases "licensed to practice law" and "preceding his or her election," candidate David Onek may be out of luck.

After gaining admittance in 1999, Onek allowed his membership in the state bar to lapse between January 2003 and January 2007. Is an attorney whose bar status is inactive "licensed to practice law" in California? Not according to the state bar: "All lawyers must be 'active' members of the bar in order to practice in California," says Diane Curtis, that association's spokeswoman.

If so, the meaning of "preceding his or her election" is vital. Should he unseat incumbent DA George Gascón, Onek would take office in January 2012 — five years after re-upping his bar membership. But if "election" really does mean "the date of election," as in November, Onek would come up a few months short.

The candidate sees things differently. "I've been running my campaign for a year, and I wouldn't be unless I was absolutely eligible," he says. "Every single person said we are qualified." Onek declined, however, to refer SF Weekly to "every single person" so they could tell us the same. The final call sits with San Francisco's city attorney. Spokesman Matt Dorsey said his office won't give an opinion on Onek's eligibility unless Onek wins.

Onek pointed out, accurately, that a very similar case was made against Jerry Brown by Republicans hoping to bar him from serving as attorney general. Brown won, of course. But the requirements to be AG aren't the same as those for DA. Brown was necessitated to "have been admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the state" not be "licensed to practice law." Lightning and lightning bugs, perhaps?

Speaking of lightning, Onek's campaign consultant has been tossing bolts. Speaking to SF Weekly, Eric Jaye urged Gascón and his lawyer, Jim Sutton, to file suit — and lose "as a preview of losing in November. ... At Sutton's rates, Gascón will be drained in days. And he'll still lose."

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