An effort to block Gov. Jerry Brown’s ballot initiative to make some nonviolent felons eligible for early release came under heavy skepticism from the California Supreme Court on Thursday, with several justices suggesting Brown acted within his discretion in the controversial way he filed the measure.
The court hearing came after a lower court ruled in February that Brown improperly filed his initiative as an amendment to a narrower measure concerning juvenile justice. The Democratic governor is scrambling to gather signatures to put on the November ballot an initiative to make certain felons eligible for early parole and to give the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation authority to award credits for good behavior.
While a Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled the measure substantially changed the content of the original initiative, several justices on Thursday suggested state law grants the proponents of a measure broad authority to make changes before circulating it for signatures.
“It seems pretty clear to me that the Legislature wanted to give a great deal of latitude to the proponents of any initiative,” Justice Carol A. Corrigan said.
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At issue before the court is a sweeping effort by Brown to reduce prison crowding and to ease the effect of fixed-term sentencing standards that Brown signed into law – and later regretted – when he was governor before. Filing his initiative as an amendment to an existing proposal allowed him to move more quickly through the state’s initiative review process.
A ruling by the Supreme Court is due within 90 days.
In an hour-long oral argument, justices pressed the Brown administration on how dramatically it changed the original proposal. Brown’s opponents, including the California District Attorneys Association and Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, had argued Brown’s measure should have gone through its own review process, including public comment.
On Thursday, Justice Ming Chin asked if the initiative had not undergone a “sweeping change,” and he questioned the difference between the original measure – a statutory change – and the final version, a constitutional amendment.
“That seems to me to be a major difference,” Chin said, “And to eliminate the public comment period when you’re suggesting a constitutional amendment seems to me to be wrong.”
Tom Hiltachk, a lawyer for opponents of the initiative, said the law allowing amendments to initiatives was intended to let proponents “improve their initiatives, not change them. And this is clearly a change.”
But Justice Goodwin Liu suggested the change was no more substantial than other measures the court has allowed.