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Youth advocates took one in the teeth Thursday when the California Supreme Court rejected all attacks on Proposition 21, the 2-year-old law that lets prosecutors charge minors as adults in criminal court for certain serious or violent felonies. By a 6-1 vote, the justices declared the controversial measure constitutional, saying it does not violate the separation-of-powers doctrine or defendants’ due-process and equal-protection rights. They also ruled that the measure doesn’t run afoul of the single-subject rule for ballot initiatives, though a couple of the justices reached that conclusion for different reasons. “We conclude that a prosecutor’s decision to file charges against a minor in criminal court … is well within the established charging authority of the executive branch,” Chief Justice Ronald George wrote in Manduley v. Superior Court of San Diego County, 02 C.D.O.S. 1858. “Although a decision to file charges directly in criminal court might preclude a juvenile court disposition,” he added later, “such a decision … constitutes an aspect of traditional prosecutorial charging discretion and does not intrude upon the judicial function.” The ruling made the fine-point distinction that separation of powers doesn’t come into play under Proposition 21 because it gives prosecutors the discretion to make certain decisions, such as trying a juvenile as an adult, before filing charges, rather than after. Justice Joyce Kennard dissented, while Justices Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Carlos Moreno issued separate concurring opinions. Steven Mayer, who worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups in writing an amicus curiae brief opposing Proposition 21, said the court’s ruling sends a message to youth authorities telling them to “lock ‘em up.” Mayer, a partner at San Francisco-based Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin, predicted that the ruling will have a “dramatic and Draconian effect” on minors by giving prosecutors “more leeway to charge juveniles in adult court, by restricting probation and by imposing a whole bunch of onerous new requirements.” The state’s voters approved Proposition 21, also known as the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act of 1998, on March 7, 2000. Codified as Welfare and Institutions Code � 707(d), it allows prosecutors to file a broad range of felony charges against minors 14 and older without having to first have a juvenile judge declare them unfit for juvenile court. Thursday’s ruling sends juvenile defendant Morgan Victor Manduley and seven underage companions back to San Diego County Superior Court for arraignment as adults on charges stemming from a racially motivated attack on five migrant workers. It also reverses the 4th District Court of Appeal, which by a 2-1 vote had declared Proposition 21 an unconstitutional violation of the separation-of-powers doctrine. But in doing so, the high court seemed slightly reluctant. “We emphasize that this court is not confronted with any question regarding the wisdom of authorizing the prosecutor, rather than the court, to decide whether a minor accused of committing a crime should be treated as an adult and subjected to the criminal court system,” Chief Justice George wrote. “In the present case, rather, we must decide whether [the law] satisfies minimum constitutional requirements.” In their concurring opinions, Justices Werdegar and Moreno took pains to explain why they went along with the majority on the single-subject issue even though they had some problems with it. Werdegar said she worried about provisions that affect the Three Strikes law and the addition of serious and violent felonies that didn’t seem germane to combating juvenile crime. But she concluded they were necessary provisions and that a broad view of the initiative’s subject “would render virtually any criminal law provision germane.” Moreno also questioned the broadness of the measure, but he went along with the majority while chastising the court for historically failing to rigorously enforce the single-subject rule drafted in 1948. “The single-subject rule was designed in part to ensure that each legislative measure succeeds or fails on its own merits,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, this court has generally not interpreted the single-subject requirement to accomplish these basic purposes.” Moreno went so far as to compare the California Supreme Court unfavorably with the Florida Supreme Court, which, he said, “rigorously” enforces its single-subject requirement. “While the Florida Supreme Court’s interpretation of its own single-subject rule may be somewhat overly stringent for California,” Moreno wrote, “some kind of reasonable middle ground between that court’s rigor and this court’s laxity seems in order.” In her dissent, Justice Kennard simply found Proposition 21 “unconstitutionally invaded a judicial function. “Proposition 21 eliminates an essential check to arbitrary executive power,” she reasoned, “and thus offends the principle of separation of powers embodied in the California Constitution.” San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Anthony Lovett, whose office was defending Proposition 21, said Thursday’s ruling frees up juvenile court resources for the minors who can be rehabilitated, while getting the bad apples out of the system. “Realistically,” he said, “a kid that does an armed robbery when he’s 17 and he’s got a bad record, he’s as bad as any other crook who walks the streets. He’s not a delinquent.” William LaFond, the defense lawyer on the case who’s now a deputy district attorney in San Diego, took hope in footnotes that he said indicate that the court believes trial judges can still dismiss a case or sentence someone as a minor even though the charges were filed in criminal court. “They have reserved this issue and seem to suggest this issue is not before the court,” he said. “I think that’s what this case has left open.”

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