California Justices Leery|to Block Parole Reform Bid

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Although district attorneys have criticized California Gov. Jerry Brown for dodging election laws in an overarching bid to reform prison sentencing through voter approval, the governor received a jolt of support Thursday at the California Supreme Court.
     During oral arguments, several justices questioned the California District Attorneys Association’s claims that Brown evaded public comment on his parole measure by hijacking and making last-minute changes to an existing juvenile-sentencing reform proposal.
     The sweeping proposal calls for a California constitutional amendment that would repeal determinate sentencing laws that Brown enacted during his first term as governor in 1977. It would authorize prisons to give out credits for good behavior and give judges rather than prosecutors the authority to decide whether juveniles should be tried as adults.
     The district attorneys sued to stop Brown’s Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 from being cleared for signatures. A state judge halted the initiative in February, ruling that the late amendments didn’t allow enough time for public comment.
     Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne Chang ruled that the amendments appeared to violate a 2014 California law aimed at stopping spot initiatives and that California Attorney General Kamala Harris shouldn’t have accepted the changes.
     The lawsuit claims Brown’s changes were a “gut-and-amend” of the juvenile proposal and that he should have to get in line and file a new initiative.
     Brown says the measure would drastically reduce the state’s bloated prison population by increasing parole chances for nonviolent inmates, and told reporters he would do “whatever it takes” to get it to voters this fall. He immediately appealed the decision and the high court stayed Chang’s decision — temporarily allowing the campaign to continue collecting signatures for the November ballot.
     Several justices on the seven-member panel appeared to disagree with Chang’s assertion that Brown’s amendments weren’t “reasonably germane” to the original filing, and stated that the changes seemed to fall within the “broad umbrella” of the original filing.
     “You differ with your opposing counsel that this is reasonably germane?” Justice Kathryn Werdegar asked the district attorneys’ counsel Thomas Hiltachk. “It deals with juveniles and it deals with prison sentences. I mean, the way we’ve interpreted the single subject rule that would certainly come under the umbrella.”
     While Hiltachk argued that the amendments were not reasonably germane and drastically altered the original filing, Justice Carol Corrigan countered that the law doesn’t prohibit or limit major alterations to amendments.
     “There’s nothing in the legislation that indicates a legislative intent to oppose that kind of limitation,” Corrigan said.
     Justice Goodwin Liu routinely picked apart Hiltachk’s arguments during the hour-long hearing. Liu asserted that the public will have plenty of opportunities to vet Brown’s proposal through the signature-gathering process and — if it makes it that far — the November ballot.
     “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that you are urging us to adopt a statutory interpretation of those words different from the constitutional interpretation of those words,” Liu said.
     A major component of the district attorneys’ lawsuit is that Brown’s late changes prevented the public from being able to comment and suggest changes to the initiative. They also argue that the state’s legislative analyst wasn’t given enough time to dissect the changes and didn’t release its report within the mandated 50-day period after the changes were made.
     Hiltachk said the delay harmed the public and that clearing Brown’s proposal could set a bad precedent for future initiative filings.
     Liu disagreed and pointed to language within Senate Bill 1253 that allows for a petition to be released without a report from the legislative analyst.
     “The harm to the public is statutorily provided for,” Liu interrupted Hiltachk.
     “But it should be used in a rare situation, not routinely,” Hiltachk responded.
     Justice Ming Chin was more skeptical of Brown’s controversial filing method, asking several times whether the changes did in fact gut the initial proposal. Chin cited Brown’s 2014 signing message on SB 1253 in which he said “it gives voters the chance to address the flaws if there are problems with the language.”
     “Where is the public review?” Chin asked. “It no longer exists because this amendment was plugged in [after the 30-day public comment period] passed.”
     Hiltachk concluded by reiterating that drastic changes to the initiative were hidden and that the purpose of the new law is to increase transparency in the initiative process.
     “If you allow a bait-and-switch like this, you’re creating an incentive for people to do just this,” Hiltachk said.
     The panel has 90 days to issue a decision on Brown’s appeal. In the meantime, the campaign can continue collecting signatures to qualify it for the November ballot.