The California Supreme Court has upheld most of Proposition 66, the initiative to speed up the death penalty, but in doing so may have made an even more tangled mess of it.
Associate Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for the majority, said voters were presented with ballot materials promising a five-year time limit on death penalty appeals in state courts, but there is “no workable means of enforcing the five-year review limit.”
Proposition 66 was approved in November with 51 percent of the vote and was met with an immediate legal challenge. During oral arguments in June, the measure’s supporters conceded that the time limit was “aspirational,” and not a requirement.
Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar complained in a dissenting opinion that this “bait-and-switch” would “do nothing but breed cynicism in the electorate.” Arguably, it did more than that: It gave the Supreme Court a rationale to uphold the initiative, and it may have saved two of the justices, Corrigan and Leondra Kruger, from hostile opposition campaigns when they face the voters in retention elections next year.
The only time California voters ever tossed Supreme Court justices from the bench, the issue was the perceived non-enforcement of the death penalty.
Cuéllar argued that the court had an obligation to strike down the five-year time limit, but instead rewrote it as a goal, with no clear guidance on how that goal should or could be met. That may have created a new basis for death penalty appeals.
Proposition 66 contained several provisions intended to address various reasons that executions have been delayed in California, where no inmate has been put to death since 2006. The measure’s other provisions all were upheld.
California law provides anyone sentenced to death with the right to two types of appeals: an automatic appeal, and a habeas corpus appeal, which is broader and may include new evidence.
The justices upheld the Prop. 66 provision that says habeas petitions, which previously went directly to the state Supreme Court, will now start in trial courts. Corrigan wrote that meeting the five-year goal would require the Legislature to “provide funding sufficient for the superior courts to meet their greatly expanded responsibilities under Proposition 66, and for this court and the courts of appeal to expedite review in capital cases without neglecting the other matters before them.”
We’ll see how that goes.
The court left in place the provision that…