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California Supreme Court Upholds Death Penalty Reform Law

by Christopher Zoukis

Proposition 66, also known as the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act, was passed by 51.13% of California voters on November 8, 2016. Prop. 66 was intended to “facilitate the enforcement of judgments and achieve cost savings in capital cases.” In short, it aims to speed up executions in the state.

Immediately after being voted into law, Prop. 66 was challenged on constitutional grounds. [See: PLN, Feb. 2017, p.41]. The California Supreme Court took up the case in order to determine whether the proposition violated the state constitution by 1) embracing more than one subject, 2) interfering with the jurisdiction of California courts to hear original habeas corpus petitions, 3) violating equal protection or 4) violating the separation of powers doctrine.

In a lengthy August 24, 2017 decision, the Supreme Court upheld Prop. 66 in its entirety; however, it did find that the law violated the separation of powers doctrine. In order to avoid striking down the proposition, the Court altered a central part of the law.

The problem was in language that required the resolution of all death penalty appeals and habeas corpus proceedings within five years. As pointed out in a concurring opinion, this process generally takes decades in California, and Prop. 66 provided no mechanism to speed the process – other than simply telling the judiciary there was now a five-year time limit. Because imposing a strict, mandatory deadline on the judiciary would interfere with the court system’s discharge of its duties, that provision violated the separation of powers doctrine.

So as not to void the entire law, the state Supreme Court, in a 5-2 ruling, construed the five-year time limit to be “directory” as opposed to mandatory. That construction was unusual because the ballot materials and advocacy campaign for Prop. 66 very clearly indicated that the five-year limitation was mandatory and inflexible. Indeed, that may very well have been the main reason the proposition passed.

Regardless, Prop. 66 was upheld but a central component, the five-year deadline for appeals in death penalty cases, was found not to be mandatory. In so doing, the Court cautioned drafters of future propositions against “the inclusion of sweeping statutory language that is inconsistent with constitutional norms.” See: Briggs v. Brown, 3 Cal. 5th 808, 400 P.3d 29, 221 Cal. Rptr. 3d 465 (Cal. 2017), rehearing denied. 


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Related legal case

Briggs v. Brown