Capitol Alert

California Supreme Court rules for Jerry Brown in prison case

The California Supreme Court, siding with Gov. Jerry Brown in a major prison case, on Monday overturned a lower court ruling blocking his initiative to make some nonviolent felons eligible for early parole.

In a 6-1 ruling, the court found Brown acted within his discretion when he filed the November ballot initiative as an amendment to a narrower measure concerning juvenile justice.

“There is no question that the changes the proponents made to this initiative measure were, in certain respects, quite extensive,” said Justice Carol A. Corrigan, writing for the majority. “However, that is their right, so long as the changes are reasonably germane to the original theme, purpose, or subject.”

By allowing the measure to go forward, the Supreme Court kept alive a sweeping effort by Brown to reduce prison crowding and ease effects of fixed-term sentencing standards that he signed into law during his first stint as governor. Brown later came to regret the rigidity of those standards, saying they gave inmates little motivation to rehabilitate themselves.

The initiative, for which the Democratic governor submitted signatures last month, would make certain felons eligible for early parole and give the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation authority to award credits for good behavior.

The state Supreme Court’s ruling dealt a blow to the California District Attorneys Association, which argued the measure will result in the release of dangerous criminals while challenging it on procedural grounds.

In its lawsuit, the district attorneys association challenged the initiative’s filing as an amendment to an existing ballot proposal, a maneuver that allowed Brown to move more quickly through the state’s initiative review process.

A Sacramento Superior Court judge, siding with the district attorneys, ruled in February that Brown’s initiative changed the original measure so substantially it should have gone through its own review process, including public comment.

In the majority opinion, Corrigan wrote that state law “left ample room for proponents to make substantive changes” to ballot initiatives and that the state Legislature anticipated that possibility when crafting rules regarding initiatives.

She said that even after the initiative was amended, opponents of the initiative “have ample opportunities to make their case during the lengthy process of signature gathering, ballot qualification, and the election itself.”

In a lone dissent, Justice Ming Chin said Brown’s initiative was so different from the original measure that it warranted additional review.

“Unfortunately, this case has now set the precedent,” he wrote. “Under today’s ruling, future initiative proponents can evade the period of public review in the same way the proponents have done here. They merely need to hijack a vaguely similar measure that was in the process of qualifying.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling was not unexpected. It came a month after oral arguments in which justices appeared highly skeptical of the lower court’s decision.

The ruling was critical to Brown. Had he lost the court case, he could have moved to put the initiative before voters in 2018. But Brown’s prospects are almost certain to be better this year, with presidential elections – and their higher turnout – typically benefiting Democratic politicians and their causes.

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, president-elect of the California District Attorneys Association, said in a prepared statement that the ruling “sets a dangerous precedent for the initiative process for the future.”

He vowed to “vigorously oppose this dangerous measure.”

Dan Newman, a spokesman for Brown, said in an email that more than 1 million registered voters signed petitions to put the initiative on the ballot and that Californians will now have an opportunity to vote.

He said, “They will now have a chance to improve public safety by voting to provide incentives so that more people follow the rules, educate themselves and turn their lives around.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders