Capitol Alert

Supreme Court upholds law to speed up executions in California, but relaxes deadlines

The state Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a voter initiative that aims to speed up the death penalty, although it relaxed strict deadlines in the law calling those targets “directive rather than mandatory.”

The court’s decision turned on whether voters intended for Proposition 66 to force the state to resolve its role in death penalty appeals within five years, as supporters pledged when they described the initiative in voter guides and in their campaign. That timeline would greatly condense a process that often takes more than 20 years.

Five justices in a majority opinion acknowledged the state could not guarantee that death penalty appeals would be complete within the five-year timeline, but let stand several procedural reforms that are intended to speed up the cases.

They interpreted the five-year deadline 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.”

Two justices disagreed, arguing in a dissenting opinion that a decision “neutering” the initiative’s deadlines betrayed voters’ intent.

“By reimagining the initiative as nothing more than an earnest exhortation calling on courts to consider dialing up the speed of death penalty adjudication, the majority upholds something quite different from the initiative considered and enacted by the electorate, leaving in its wake uncertainty about how we interpret initiatives and whether the time limits included in Proposition 66 have any legal effect,” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar wrote in an opinion that was also signed by Justice Raymond Ikola.

Proposition 66, which aims to resume executions in a state where none has taken place in more than a decade, won 51 percent of the vote in the November election.

Opponents immediately filed suit against the measure, alleging that its mandate to speed the appeals process would result in “suppression of legitimate challenges, and a decrease in counsels’ ability to represent their clients.”

The California Supreme Court stayed implementation of the new law in December and its ruling now allows the state Judicial Council to begin writing rules that would carry out the initiative. Intended to expedite a process than can take more than two decades, Proposition 66 expands the pool of lawyers eligible to take on capital cases and institutes shorter timelines for legal challenges

“Death penalty opponents made their case to the people and lost. Their effort to get the courts to overturn Proposition 66 would have left California with a dysfunctional death penalty process and thwarted the clear will of the voters,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which argued for Proposition 66. He called the voided five-year deadline a “minor part” of the initiative that would not diminish its effectiveness.

But lawyers who challenged the initiative said California is no closer to executing death row inmates. Executions remain on hold in California because of federal lawsuits that challenge the constitutionality of the state’s lethal injection procedure. A proposal to replace the old three-drug cocktail with a single dose of a barbiturate was rejected in December because of ambiguities and insufficient justifications for the new rules.

A federal court order banning executions remains in effect until the state can resolve the challenges to its lethal injection practices.

“Today’s decision changes nothing. The fact remains that California has not carried out an execution in over 10 years and executions will not resume any time soon,” said Ana Zamora, criminal justice policy director for ACLU Northern California.

The Supreme Court hearing in June focused on the logistical issues of meeting a strict five-year deadline for all death penalty appeals without sacrificing the other work of California courts. Supporters argued that the time limit could be interpreted as merely a target.

The justices who upheld the law wrote in their majority opinion that accelerating the pace of death penalty appeals would require the Legislature to allocate more money to courts for their “greatly expanded responsibilities.”

In a concurring opinion that upheld the law, Justice Goodwin Liu expressed skepticism that it would work within the timeline supporters presented to voters. “Proposition 66 contains no plan to compress into five years a process that often takes two decades, and no entity – not this court, not the Judicial Council, not the Legislature – can simply wave a magic wand and make it so,” he wrote.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

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