SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - A state court judge late Wednesday stalled California Gov. Jerry Brown's bid to reform prison sentencing through a proposed ballot measure, finding time should have been given for the public to vet last-minute changes.
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne Chang said last-minute changes to the proposal didn't allow adequate time for public comment and that California Attorney General Kamala Harris shouldn't have allowed Brown's amendments.
"The court finds that the attorney general abused her discretion in accepting the amendment as reasonably germane to the theme, purpose and subject of the original initiative," Chang said.
Chang sided with the California District Attorneys Association, who successfully argued the governor skirted election-filing laws by making last-minute changes to the reform initiative. The district attorneys said the amendments to the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 drastically altered the original proposal and didn't give the 30 days required for public comment.
At issue was a proposal that initially focused on reforms to the juvenile justice system but was altered in January to include sweeping changes to the state's adult system.
The district attorneys argued in court that Brown's changes were essentially a "gut and amend" of the original proposal and that the parties were being asked to "carry [Brown's] water" instead of filing a new initiative.
"And by God, he's free to do that, but he should have just stood in line like everybody else and let the chips fall where they may," Thomas Hiltachk, attorney for the petitioners, said.
While the state will likely appeal Chang's decision, the setback could cause the initiative to miss the November ballot.
Brown held a press conference in January and announced his support for the sentencing reform proposal, saying he would do "whatever it takes" to place it on the ballot. He called the proposal "well-balanced" and that it would help reduce the state's prison population by increasing parole consideration for nonviolent inmates.
Two weeks later, the district attorneys filed a lawsuit against Harris, asking the court to prohibit the initiative from being released for circulation. The prosecutors argued that Brown should have to file a new initiative rather than amend the old proposal, and that the state's legislative analyst was not given enough time to analyze the "extremely complex initiative."
Chang agreed that the amendments appear to be gut-and-amend changes and that a 2014 California law regarding initiatives put a stop to spot initiatives.
"What the amendment did was the type of mischief that the Legislature had in mind, otherwise a measure could change substantive law, and then after the public comment period put in a new amendment changing substantive law without the ability of the public to review it," Chang said.
If the measure is eventually released, it would need at least 585,000 voter signatures to land on the November ballot.
The Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Rachele Huennekens told Courthouse News on Wednesday evening, "We are appealing the ruling."
True to her word, Harris filed an emergency petition to appeal with the California Supreme Court on Thursday afternoon.
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