(CN) – The California Supreme Court has ordered Gov. Gavin Newsom to unseal court documents related to clemency applications for six convicted felons.
Previously, Newsom had sought to keep court documents related to the applications under seal as the state Supreme Court considered whether to consent to the governor’s clemency grants to the convicted felons.
“We’re not against clemency, but we need to see the record,” said Thomas Burke of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, who argued the case on behalf of the First Amendment Coalition. “The question is whether the governor is appropriately exercising his power.”
California is unusual in that while the governor has the power to grant clemency like most states, in the case of two-time felons the governor must seek and receive the consent of the state Supreme Court. The provision dates to the 19th century and is designed to prevent the abuse of power.
In most instances, the governor’s request for court permission is procedural. But for the first time in nearly half a century, the California Supreme Court rejected three clemency applications filed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in December 2018
This spring, the state’s high court released guidance for how it would rule on clemency applications in the future, saying it would either approve or deny such applications based on the evidentiary record.
“How are you supposed to know why the Supreme Court ruled a certain way if the record is sealed?,” Burke said.
The First Amendment Coalition initially fought the sealing of records as it related to Brown’s granting clemency to former state Sen. Roderick Wright, who was convicted of perjury and voter fraud in 2014.
At the time, Brown fought the disclosure, but the state eventually relented because Wright was a public figure.
“The secrecy started with Brown, but since it’s transitioned to Newsom, the new governor has taken an even more extreme position,” said Burke.
Newsom tried to argue that court records relating to the applications of six felons – Ramon Rodriguez, Susan Burton, Richard Flowers, James Harris, Elaine Wong and Anthony Guzman – should remain sealed because none of the individuals in question are public figures.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
But Burke and the coalition argued there is a public interest in understanding how the clemency process plays out at the Supreme Court level.
“These latest rulings will ensure transparency for the executive branch’s use of its substantial clemency power,” said the coalition’s executive director David Snyder.
Many criminal justice reform advocates have praised Newsom for using his clemency powers, particularly as it relates to the case of Susan Burton.
Burton went through a long period of drug use after the accidental death of her child, shuffling in and out of jail before finally getting sober. She now runs a nonprofit that seeks to help women leaving the prison system with job placement and beating addiction problems.
Burke is quick to point out the First Amendment Coalition is in full support of clemency, but the question at issue is whether the governor can flout court procedures with impunity.
“FAC calls on the governor to follow the rules of court going forward,” Snyder said. “The public should not need to file a new motion each time the covernor submits one of these files to the court under seal.”