An appeals court Monday reversed a Sacramento federal judge’s ruling that two state laws limiting parole hearings and giving the governor authority to block paroles were unconstitutional.
The late U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton ruled in 2014 that the two statutes created a significant risk of making murder sentences longer than they otherwise would have been, even though the prison terms were imposed before the laws were enacted.
Proposition 9, a ballot initiative passed by the voters in 2008, and Proposition 89, passed by voters in 1988, “retrospectively increased punishments, in violation of the ex post facto clause of the U.S. Constitution,” Karlton wrote in his 58-page order.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and, in a 30-page opinion published Monday, reversed Karlton.
The appellate judges said Karlton, who died last year at age 80, “committed legal error by basing (his) findings principally on speculation and inference, rather than concrete evidence demonstrating … risk of lengthened incarceration.”
The opinion was authored by Circuit Judge Carlos T. Bea, with Circuit Judges Susan P. Graber and Consuelo M. Callahan concurring.
Proposition 89 granted the governor the right to reverse paroles already approved by the Board of Parole Hearings in murder cases. Karlton said every governor since passage of the measure has abused that power by blocking 70 percent of the approved paroles they considered.
But, the appellate judges said, Karlton cited no evidence that governors had reversed the board other than “on the basis of the same factors which the parole authority is required to consider.”
Nor was evidence offered that the inmate named as lead plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the statutes “would have received parole before the enactment of Proposition 89, and that Proposition 89 changed that result,” the judges said. “Therefore,” they said, “Proposition 89 remains only a transfer of decision-making power, which does not violate the ex post facto clause.”
Proposition 9, known as “The Victims’ Bill of Rights” or “Marsy’s Law,” mandated longer periods between parole hearings, which Karlton said posed a risk of more time behind bars than prisoners faced when they were charged and convicted.
The measure eliminated the board’s discretion to set hearings a year apart, even when the board made a finding of strong evidence that a prisoner would be ready for parole within a year.
“A decrease in the frequency of parole hearings – without more – is not sufficient to prove a significant risk of lengthened incarceration,” the circuit panel said.
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189