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In a victory for California Gov. Gray Davis and state prosecutors, the California Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of Proposition 21, the tough-on-juvenile-crime initiative. By a 5-2 vote the court refused to look at whether the measure violated the state’s 51-year-old single-subject rule. Justices Stanley Mosk and Joyce Kennard voted to grant a hearing in League of Women Voters v. Davis, SO87669. Passed by 62 percent of the voters in March, Prop 21 — dubbed the “Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act” — allows prosecutors to decide whether juveniles as young as 14 should be tried in adult court, expands the category of felonies that would funnel youth offenders into state prison and increases punishment. In April the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of the League of Women Voters of California and other groups, challenged the initiative, claiming it dealt with more than one subject. The ACLU asked the court to stay implementation of the law because, it argued, not only did the measure intend to overhaul the juvenile justice system, it separately aimed to curb gang activity in prison and amend the state’s six-year-old Three Strikes and You’re Out law. To bolster its argument for a stay, the ACLU noted that the initiative makes far-reaching changes in the juvenile justice system that would be complicated and expensive to implement. They added that young people would suffer irreparable injuries that would be difficult to remedy if the court later found the initiative to be unconstitutional. Robert Kim, a San Francisco staff attorney with the ACLU, said the message from the court Wednesday was that “we have to start somewhere else.” Kim said that because the court did not resolve the matter, the ACLU is free to bring a challenge in a lower court. “It hasn’t ruled on the merits,” he said. “There is no preclusive effect.” The attorney added that the petitioners will discuss the situation further and decide what course of action to take. But in Sacramento, lawyers at the California attorney general’s office welcomed the ruling. “The court seemed to agree with our argument that Prop 21 only deals with one subject,” said spokesman Nathan Barankin. In defending the measure, the AG’s office took the position that single-subject challenges can’t be brought after an election. Government lawyers had argued that because the ACLU brought its challenge some six weeks after the election, granting the petition would have defeated the “constitutionally contemplated procedure” reflected in the language of the single-subject statute. They also wrote that upholding such a challenge would “contribute to an increasing cynicism on the part of the electorate.” Kim disagreed, saying that the Supreme Court has yet to say if challenges must be brought before or after a vote is taken. “Historically, the court has suggested one should wait,” he said. In December, the court relied on the single-subject rule to strike an initiative that would have appeared on the March ballot, a step the court had taken just one other time in 50 years. But in shelving Prop 24, which would have cut legislators’ pay and set new boundaries for electoral districts, the justices disagreed fiercely over when single-subject challenges should be brought. In a blistering dissent, Kennard, joined by Justice Janice Rogers Brown, called the majority decision in Senate of the State of California v. Jones, 99 C.D.O.S 9729, hasty and said that “absent compelling circumstances,” initiative challenges should never be resolved by the court before an election. Chief Justice Ronald George, the author of the majority opinion in that case, countered in a footnote that Kennard “pays little heed to the explicit language” of the single-subject rule and “fails to take into account the considerable effort and many millions of dollars that both supporters and opponents of the measure would be required to expend during an election campaign in what would prove to be a futile exercise.”

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