SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A divided California Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a voter-passed initiative to speed up executions on death row, but ruled a five-year time limit to decide death penalty appeals isn’t mandatory.
Proposition 66, also called Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016, limits state appeals of death sentences to five years and transfers habeas petitions from the state Supreme Court back to the original trial court. The law passed with 51 percent of the vote this past November, narrowly beating out a rival measure to repeal the death penalty that received 46 percent of the vote.
At a hearing in June, the high court seemed inclined to strike down the five-year provision, with a number of justices expressing concern that there seemed to be no way to enforce it.
Writing for the majority on Thursday, Justice Carol Corrigan said even though a strict five-year time limit seems consistent with voter intent, enforcement of the rule would create a constitutional dilemma.
“The statute is framed in mandatory terms, and the voters were told in the ballot materials that the five-year limit on the post-trial review process would be binding and enforceable,” she wrote. “On the other hand, both proponents and the attorney general contended at oral argument that the five-year limit should not be given mandatory effect, but should instead be understood as largely aspirational.
“They urge that the limit may be seen as providing a frame of reference for the initiative’s specific reforms designed to expedite the review process. On balance, we conclude it is best to accept the attorney general’s and intervener’s concession that the five-year limit is not mandatory.”
The justice added, “It would require extensive rewriting to create an operative enforcement mechanism. Even if we undertook that task, any provision that would make the five-year limit mandatory would pose serious separation of powers problems. When we exercise our power of reformation, we do so in order to preserve a statute’s constitutionality, not to threaten it.”
She concluded that it’s probably best construed as “an exhortation to the parties and the courts to handle cases as expeditiously as is consistent with the fair and principled administration of justice.”
Justices Goodwin Liu, Kathryn Werdegar, Leondra Krugar, and Justice Andrea Hoch, of the Third Appellate District, joined Corrigan’s opinion. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Ming Chin recused themselves from the proceedings because they both sit on the Judicial Council, which is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
But Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar disagreed sharply, saying the five-year limit imposed by the statute was fully intended by voters to be a strict deadline, and to construe it otherwise throws the law into uncertainty.
“Candor requires us to be equally clear about whether such a deadline accords with our law: It does not,” he wrote. “A statutory limit on the amount of time a court may spend deciding a case is an intrusion on quintessential judicial functions and violates the California Constitution’s separation of powers provision. Only by misconstruing this mandatory five-year time limit as nothing more than an ‘exhortation’ for faster death penalty adjudication does the majority sidestep this outcome. In doing so, the majority disregards the electorate’s clear purpose in enacting Proposition 66 and fails to promote forthright deliberation.”
Cuellar added, “A mandatory deadline, as all the parties agree, is not constitutional. Because that is precisely what the voters enacted, we must be equally clear and invalidate it.”
Fourth Appellate District Justice Raymond Ikola joined Cuellar’s dissent.
In his opinion concurring with the majority, Justice Liu said he was of two minds about the deadline.
“I believe both positions are reasonable. Like Justice Cuéllar, I find it stunning that Proposition 66’s proponents and the attorney general claim that the voters intended the five-year limit to be non-binding or aspirational when that claim is plainly belied by the ballot materials and advocacy campaign for Proposition 66,” he wrote. “Although I am unsure whether I would construe voter intent as flexibly as our decisions have, I acknowledge this is one way of enforcing the separation of powers and there is a lot of water over the dam in our case law.”
He said all of the justices agreed that a mandatory time limit would undermine the authority of the courts and that the law will likely be a strain on courts’ already over-burdened budgets. There are nearly 750 inmates on death row.
“Although transfer of capital habeas corpus petitions to the superior court may expedite the adjudication of those petitions, superior courts asked to help reduce this court’s substantial backlog of habeas corpus cases will likely require additional resources to address petitions that are often as lengthy and time consuming as direct appeals. It is unclear whether the Legislature will appropriate funds for this purpose,” Liu wrote. “Nor does Proposition 66 expedite the appointment of capital habeas attorneys. And the constitutionality of Proposition 66’s restrictions on successive petitions has yet to be fully tested.”
The statute is mostly just unrealistic, according to Liu, as it says nothing about how the Judicial Council – which is charged with continuously monitoring capital case review timelines – is supposed to make sure that these cases stay on track to meet the five-year deadline.
“The five-year deadline imposed on the entire state death penalty post-conviction process is so sweeping in its objective yet so vague on the means of accomplishing the objective that it does not provide useful guidance for those charged with implementing Proposition 66,” Liu said.