LOS ANGELES (AP) — California Supreme Court justices considering whether a ballot measure to speed up executions is unconstitutional expressed skepticism Tuesday about a provision that would require death sentence appeals to be completed within five years.
Several justices peppered a lawyer from the attorney general’s office about how the deadline could be met without radically altering the court system and whether it had any consequences or was merely aspirational.
“So it’s a mandatory deadline that’s toothless?” Justice Leondra R. Kruger asked.
The ultimate goal is to meet that deadline, but Deputy Attorney General Jose Alfonso Zelidon-Zepeda conceded it’s not enforceable.
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Supporters of Proposition 66 downplayed the deadline as not being a critical piece of the law that aimed to reform a dysfunctional system that hasn’t executed a condemned killer in more than a decade.
The measure passed in November by 51 percent of voters would assign more lawyers to death sentence appeals and shift some appeals to trial court judges in an effort to speed up cases that now take an average of more than 15 years.
Supporters said the court could strike the five-year deadline and still uphold the law, but death penalty opponents said the deadline was a critical piece of a false promise made to voters.
“The voters were promised that they could make death penalty cases happen faster and cheaper and without killing … any innocent people,” attorney Christina Von der Ahe Rayburn, who challenged the measure, argued. “The voters were promised a trifecta that everyone in this room, I believe, knows is not quite possible to achieve.”
Foes of capital punishment argued that Proposition 66 was unconstitutional because it would take power away from the state’s high court to decide how it handles cases and it would disrupt the court system, cost the state more money and undermine the appeals process.
With a backlog of more than 380 death penalty appeals, there’s concern judges would be overwhelmed trying to speed through appeals.
The ballot initiative was designed to “mend not end” capital punishment in California, where nearly 750 inmates are on Death Row and only 13 have been executed since 1978.
A competing measure to repeal capital punishment lost by a slightly wider margin. Both sides acknowledged the current system is broken.
“The one thing everybody agreed on was that the status quo was unsatisfactory,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, who also argued in support of Proposition 66. “What they’re asking to do is override the voters and keep the status quo.”
Even before all the votes were counted and the reform measure was declared a winner, challengers went to court to block it.
Ron Briggs, a former pro-capital punishment supervisor from El Dorado County whose father wrote the ballot measure that expanded California’s death penalty in 1978, brought the measure with former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp, a longtime death penalty opponent, who died in March.
The challengers also targeted Proposition 66 for violating a requirement that a ballot measure only cover a single subject.
They said it appealed to voters by incorporating unrelated elements such as provisions that would allow condemned inmates to be housed at prisons other than San Quentin and would require a percentage of inmate pay to go toward victim restitution.
Justice Kathryn Werdegar noted that the court allowed ballot measures to embrace a wide range of subjects.
The court gave the single subject argument short shrift and Liu encouraged Von der Ahe Rayburn to move on to other issues such as the deadline.
Historically, the court has given wide latitude to the will of the voters and shot down most challenges to ballot measures.
The court must rule within three months.