Pro-life activists and journalists David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt won a small victory on Good Friday as proceedings in the criminal case against them were halted by the California Supreme Court.
The preliminary hearings in the case were stopped to review a motion, filed by Merritt’s attorneys with Liberty Counsel, alleging that state Attorney General Xavier Becerra and his predecessor, now-Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., were biased because of their close ties to Planned Parenthood.
Merritt and Daleiden are facing 15 felony counts — 14 for violation of California’s anti-eavesdropping law and one for criminal conspiracy to invade privacy over their series of undercover videos that featured secretly recorded conversations with Planned Parenthood employees about the organization’s trafficking in the body parts of unborn babies.
When the videos were first released in 2015 by the Center for Medical Progress, even then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called the footage, which led to a congressional inquiry, “disturbing.” Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, denied wrongdoing but did end its practice of receiving reimbursement for fetal-tissue donation in response to the public outcry over the footage.
In the motion, Merritt’s attorneys call for Becerra and his office to be recused from prosecuting the criminal complaint. The petition outlines the extensive ties to and collaboration with Planned Parenthood by Becerra, also a Democrat, and Harris.
The lawyers pointed out that during Becerra’s attorney general campaign, “Planned Parenthood sponsored and hosted his primary election party, where he addressed party-goers standing in front of a large sign, reading, ‘I STAND WITH PLANNED PARENTHOOD.’”
This show of unity was just the tip of the iceberg, according to the attorneys, as the motion goes on to allege that then-Attorney General Kamala Harris collaborated with Planned Parenthood since the investigation began. They cite documentation showing that Harris drafted legislation at the abortion provider’s instruction to change the state penal code to make secretly recording and distributing communications with health care providers a crime. That legislation was signed into law in September 2016, while Harris was still serving as attorney general, and charges subsequently were filed against Daleiden and Merritt in March 2017, two months after Becerra had succeeded Harris as attorney general.
A December 2015 investigative report from the California Department of Justice also showed “direct involvement in the investigation by Planned Parenthood’s then-chief counsel, Beth Parker,” who instructed the state investigators “to seize Daleiden’s computers for Planned Parenthood, and which were seized.”
Merritt’s attorneys cited the significant financial contributions that both Becerra and Harris have received from Planned Parenthood over the years.
Since 1998, Becerra “received approximately $5,000 in donations from Planned Parenthood or its employees,” and Harris received “approximately $7,500 in donations from Planned Parenthood or its employees.” Both received thousands more from groups allied with Planned Parenthood: Harris received $39,855 in total from ‘Abortion Policy/Pro-Abortion Rights’ groups,” and Becerra, when serving in the House of Representatives, “received more than $7,600 from both Planned Parenthood and NARAL.”
Thomas Brejcha, the president and founder of the Thomas More Society, which is representing Daleiden in the case, told the Register that the “litany of facts” pointing to bias on the part of the California attorneys general involved in the case is “telling.”
He emphasized that similar undercover journalistic endeavors have gone unnoticed by prosecutors in California.
“Never in the history of California has any journalist been prosecuted for a violation of this anti-eavesdropping law even though undercover stings, undercover recording is done almost routinely,” Brejcha said.
Felony charges for such practices were overkill, he argued, pointing out that the Los Angeles Times editorial board called the charges a “disturbing overreach.”
“It’s disturbingly aggressive for Becerra to apply this criminal statute to people who were trying to influence a contested issue of public policy, regardless of how sound or popular that policy may be,” the newspaper wrote in 2017.
Becerra and Harris did not respond to the Register’s requests for comment on the allegations of bias against them.
Brejcha was cautiously optimistic regarding the California Supreme Court’s review of the case.
“This kind of thing doesn’t happen very often, where the California Supreme Court puts a stop the business day before a two-week evidentiary hearing in a criminal felony case,” he noted. “There’s obviously something about this case that definitely has caught their eye, and that’s very promising for the defendants, but we just don’t know.”
Mat Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, agreed that the halt in the proceedings was “significant.”
“The court at the eleventh hour stopped a two-week trial that was coming up,” he told the Register. “I take that as a sign that they’re taking a look at this. There’s some significant legal issues that have been overlooked or ignored by the lower court judge on this and in other matters, as well.”
Staver pointed to other instances of bias on the part of Becerra, in addition to those documented in Liberty Counsel’s motion, such as the attorney general allowing Planned Parenthood to attempt to join the prosecution in the case under a 2008 California’s victims-rights law, Marsy’s Law.
“Planned Parenthood and NARAL and some of the other pro-abortion groups: They wanted to intervene in the case; the attorney general didn’t oppose that,” he emphasized. “We’re talking about a private individual [Planned Parenthood] who has a vested interest in another civil matter that they filed against Sandra Merritt and David Daleiden for millions of dollars in damages, and they wanted to intervene and become part of the prosecution.”
State superior court Judge Christopher Hite rejected that attempt by the abortion groups, but Staver called the attorney general’s support of such an attempt “extraordinary.”
“Never in the history of California has the state of California ever prosecuted journalists for undercover videos,” he added. “It’s selective prosecution solely because of Planned Parenthood.”
David Daleiden also commented in a brief statement to the Register on the political-bias claims in the case.
“Planned Parenthood purchased this bogus prosecution from Kamala Harris and her successor, Xavier Becerra, and the California attorney general’s office,” he alleged. “This legally unsupported case is a flagrant attack on the civil and constitutional rights of citizen journalists and all Americans and must be thrown out immediately.”
Lauretta Brown is a Register staff writer.