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State high court upholds most of death penalty initiative

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Guards patrol the halls in the Adjustment Center at San Quentin State Prison’s death row in San Quentin, Calif. Tuesday, August 16, 2016. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)

The California Supreme Court on Thursday upheld most of a voter initiative intended to speed up death penalty appeals, but said a 5-year deadline for resolving appeals is an advisory and not mandatory.

The court ruled in San Francisco on Proposition 66, known as the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act, approved by 51 percent of the state’s voters in 2016.

Justice Carol Corrigan wrote that the 5-year-deadline violated the doctrine of separation of powers by intruding on courts’ authority to manage their work and administer justice in a fair and orderly way.

The initiative also included no effective method of enforcing the deadline, she said.

Therefore, the deadline is “properly construed as an exhortation to the parties and the courts to handle cases as expeditiously as is consistent with the fair and principled administration of justice,” Corrigan wrote in the majority opinion.

The proposition was challenged in a lawsuit filed directly in the Supreme Court by Ron Briggs, a former El Dorado County supervisor.

It was defended by the state attorney general’s office and the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

The decision left in place a provision of the initiative that generally limits Death Row defendants to one habeas corpus appeal and requires that habeas corpus petitions must start in a trial court.

At present, death penalty verdicts are appealed directly from a trial court to the state Supreme Court. After that, defendants are entitled to a second appeal through a habeas corpus petition, which can allege legal or constitutional violations that were not raised at trial.

Until now, habeas corpus petitions were also filed directly in the Supreme Court, but now they will start out in Superior Court.

Thursday’s ruling also leaves in place provisions that expand the pool of lawyers who can be assigned to death penalty appeals and that allow Death Row prisoners to be housed in prisons other than San Quentin State Prison.

The initiative also exempts the state’s development of death penalty protocols from the requirements of California’s Administrative Procedures Act.

Kurt Scheidegger, the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said, “I’m very pleased that the court is carrying out the will of the people and rejecting the claims of those who thought the initiative should be thrown out.”

Scheidegger said he thinks court’s conclusion that the 5-year deadline is not mandatory will make “not much” difference.

“We knew it wouldn’t be five years in every case,” he said.

But it still could be “months” before executions in the state resume, he said. One reason is that a federal constitutional challenge to the one-drug lethal injection protocol being developed by the state is now pending in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Christina Von Der Ahe Rayburn, a lawyer for Briggs, said the court’s interpretation of 5-year deadline as advisory is “a big deal.”

“Five years is absolutely impossible. It would have caused a lot of chaos in the courtroom” by forcing courts to spend most of their time on capital cases while neglecting other types of cases, she said.

While ruling on the initiative in general, the court left the door open for individual inmates to challenge the aspects of the law in specific cases in later lawsuits.

Until now, death penalty appeals have taken up to 15 or 20 years to complete, for reasons including a lack of lawyers, delays in preparing trial transcripts, multiple habeas corpus petitions and the overburdening of the California Supreme Court.

There are now nearly 750 people on Death Row in California with cases in various stages of appeal. There has been no execution in the state since 2006 because of federal and state court lawsuits challenging the state’s execution methods and protocols.

The state high court had suspended the initiative while it considered the case, but Thursday’s ruling puts the measure into effect.

The seven-member court made the decision with two Court of Appeal justices assigned as temporary members.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Ming Chin recused themselves from the decision because they are members of the state Judicial Council, the policymaking body of the courts. The council was named as a defendant, along with Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

Justice Mario-Florentino Cuellar, joined by appeals court Justice Raymond Ikola, wrote a separate opinion in which he said the court should have declared the 5-year deadline unconstitutional instead of coming up with the “implausible construction” that it was not mandatory.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, said, “Today’s decision changes nothing… The death penalty in California remains broken beyond repair.”

Ana Zamora, the criminal justice policy director of the ACLU of Northern California, said in a statement, “The fact remains that California has not carried out an execution in over 10 years and executions will not resume any time soon.”

“A federal court stay remains in place that bars the resumption of executions until the court has time to resolve the important Eighth Amendment issues raised by the protocol the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has proposed,” she said.

Becerra’s office issued a statement saying, “As the state’s lawyer, the attorney general is tasked to defend the laws of California. Our office has fulfilled its constitutional duty in this case.”

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