California’s Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a 2016 voter-approved initiative aimed at speeding up the state’s death penalty process. The five-member majority held, however, that Proposition 66’s strict five-year deadline for courts handling appeals “must be deemed directive rather than mandatory.”
While ballot materials assured voters that the five-year timeline would be “binding and enforceable,” the court noted that both proponents of the initiative and the attorney general had argued that the timeframe should be considered “aspirational.”
“It would require extensive rewriting to create an operative enforcement mechanism,” Associate Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the majority. “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.”
California last executed an inmate in 2006. The capital punishment system, with 748 condemned inmates on death row, bogged down due to a lack of lawyers, lengthy proceedings and challenges to the state’s lethal injection methods.
State voters in 2016 rejected for the second time in recent years an initiative to end the death penalty. Instead, they approved a competing measure, Proposition 66, aimed at hastening executions through a number of significant changes to the process, including reducing an inmate’s ability to file successive petitions and requiring habeas corpus petitions to be heard in trial courts.
“Death penalty opponents made their case to the people and lost,” said initiative backer Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. “Their effort to get the courts to overturn Proposition 66 would have left California with a dysfunctional death penalty process and thwarted the clear will of the voters.”
Opponents of the initiative had sought to block the law on the grounds that the measure violated California’s single-subject rule for initiatives—it also called for prisoners to pay restitution and for the elimination of the Habeas Corpus Resource Center board—and illegally infringed on judicial authority.
Casting the law’s processing deadlines as aspirational addresses the separation-of-powers complaint, the court wrote. And the plaintiffs claims of a single-subject rule violations are framed “too narrowly.”
“It is readily apparent that the provisions identified by petitioner are reasonably germane to the ‘comprehensive criminal justice reform’ approved by the voters,” Corrigan wrote.
Corrigan was joined in the majority by Associate Justices Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, Goodwin Liu and Leondra Kruger as well as California Third District Court of Appeal Justice Andrea Hoch, who heard the case by assignment.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Associate Justice Ming Chin recused themselves from the case because they are members of the Judicial Council, which was named a respondent in the case.
Christina Von der Ahe Rayburn, the Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe partner who represented the petitioners, said in an email she was disappointed the court upheld Proposition 66, “which we believe is replete with constitutional flaws.”
Rayburn said her clients, which included former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp until his death in March, are “gratified” the high court recognized the initiative’s “unrealistic deadlines” and “rendered them toothless.”
In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar said the promised five-year deadline misled voters and violated the law.
“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,” he wrote.
California Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice Raymond Ikola joined in Cuellar’s opinion.
This report was updated with additional comment about the ruling.