Capitol Alert

Change in California jury rules prompts testy budget exchange

A budget demand by Gov. Jerry Brown led to a tense exchange late Thursday between a top administration official and state Sen. Mark Leno, the upper house’s longtime budget leader.

Under a published budget compromise between the governor’s office and lawmakers, the number of peremptory challenges in misdemeanor cases would be reduced from 10 to seven.

But as the Legislature’s budget-writing committee met to approve components of the deal, Brown’s liaison to the committee announced “late-breaking news”: that the agreement actually involved reducing the number of peremptory challengers – attorneys’ right to dismiss jurors without cause – to six, not seven.

Leno, D-San Francisco, was not pleased.

“I don’t think of my governor as being that petty,” Leno told Amy Costa, the Department of Finance’s chief deputy director. He added that the demand was “disrespectful” of ongoing legislative talks on a bill that would do the same thing, as well as budget committees’ earlier rebuffing of a similar proposal in Brown’s January spending plan.

“I don’t know what message the governor didn’t hear,” Leno added.

“Petty? Disrespectful? I would not characterize that in this way at all,” Costa countered after requesting “a point of personal privilege.” Other lawmakers on the panel sided with Leno, but the proposal ultimately passed.

In his January plan, Brown said that more than six challenges per side unnecessarily delay court proceedings. A legislative analysis of Senate Bill 213 noted that high numbers of peremptory challenges have been linked to discrimination against jurors on racial and other grounds, while also making it harder to fill jury pools.

Critics of the measure, including an unlikely coalition of prosecutors and defense attorneys, said it would increase the number of juror challenges for cause as well as interfere with attorneys’ efforts to ensure a fair trial.

The bill, which has idled in the Assembly for months, passed the Senate last year 34-1. Leno was the sole no vote.