Xavier Becerra’s Democratic rival for attorney general, Dave Jones, on Thursday broadened his attack, alleging in a new suit that the incumbent misused a working courtroom in Sacramento as a campaign ad backdrop.
Jones’ lawsuit mirrors similar complaints Monday with the Fair Political Practices Commission and the Attorney General’s Office. Jones claims Becerra violated state law barring campaign activities in public buildings when his campaign shot campaign footage inside the Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building. The five-story complex is home to the Third District Court of Appeal, including its historic courtroom.
Becerra did not address the lawsuit during a press conference called Thursday afternoon to decry proposed Trump administration restrictions on federally funded family planning services.
Becerra campaign attorney Stephen Kaufman of the Kaufman Legal Group called the lawsuit “baseless and frivolous.”
“The campaign applied for and obtained a permit from the California Film Commission to film at the courthouse by going through the same legal process that is available to everyone,” Kaufman said in a statement. “The law cited by Jones does not apply where a candidate uses a public forum that is available to anyone else on the same terms.”
Jones’ complaint, filed by his lawyers at Nossaman, seeks damages tied to the costs of shooting and airing the ads—a figure he put at more than $2 million—as well as a judge’s order that Becerra stop airing the four campaign ads showing the courthouse.
“The conversion of a state courtroom into a film set, in lieu of recreating a courtroom scene through purchasing scene materials with campaign funds, provided the campaign with a significant monetary gain,” according to the complaint, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
The filming of the ads, completed over a single day in April, raised questions about the use of public courtrooms for political purposes. A production company working for the Becerra campaign obtained a permit for the shoot from the California Film Commission, even though the commission’s website, at the time, said “filming requests for appellate courtrooms located within state office buildings will not be considered.”
After Jones filed his complaint Monday, the website language was revised to say: “One exception is the 3rd District Appellate Court in Sacramento. Permit requests for this property should be submitted to the CFC.”
In an email Tuesday, commission executive director Amy Lemisch said the initial website information was correct “with regard to filming exclusions in appellate courtrooms that are under the jurisdiction of the Judicial Council.” The Mosk building is owned and operated by the state.
“In this case, approval for filming was granted by the Capitol Permit Office and the permit was processed by the California Film Commission in accordance with standard procedures and protocols,” Lemisch said.
The production company working for Becerra’s campaign also applied to the Judicial Council to use the appellate court for “a short spot with Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Governor Jerry Brown.” The application was signed “approved” on April 26, the day of the filming, by Andrea Rohmann, the court executive officer for the Third District. A judicial branch spokesman said the application was collected “for information purposes only” and was not forwarded to the Judicial Council.
The court was not in session on the day footage for the 30-second ads were shot.
Vance Raye, administrative presiding justice of the Third District, said Tuesday that he did not know about the ads until shortly before crews started shooting them.
“They didn’t come to me for the keys,” Raye said.
Asked if he was concerned about a political ad being shot in the courtroom, Raye said “that’s one way to look at it.” But, he added, “If you’re going to allow it to happen, if you’re going to make it available to everyone involved and it doesn’t inconvenience the court at all, then maybe it’s OK.”
Becerra and Jones, both Democrats, lead the four-man race for attorney general in terms of fundraising and likely name recognition given that they both hold statewide offices.
A Jones campaign spokeswoman said the candidate filed suit in Los Angeles because the ads reached the biggest audience there. The lawsuit was filed by Nossaman attorneys Lloyd Pellman, Amber Maltbie and Alexander Suarez.