The California voter-approved measure intended to speed up executions survived a state Supreme Court challenge Thursday but the court rejected the mandatory five-year deadline for resolving capital appeals.
The California Supreme Court, by a 5-2 vote, upheld the key provisions of Proposition 66, which passed by 51 percent last year, but it did say the initiatives directive that death appeals must be decided within five years cannot be considered mandatory on the courts.
Most of the delay in California capital cases comes from simply trying to find qualified capital defense attorneys to represent defendants on appeals.
The deadline is merely “an exhortation to the parties and the courts to handle cases as expeditiously as is consistent with the fair and principled administration of justice,” wrote Justice Carol Corrigan for the majority.
“The five-year period may be understood to express the voters’ view of what would ordinarily constitute a ‘reasonable time’ for completing review proceedings,” she said.
In dissent Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar said Prop. 66’s five-year deadline for completion of state appeals and habeas petitions in death cases does not comply with 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 said. He said Prop. 66 flatly violates the state Constitution. He was joined by visiting Justice Raymond Ikola.
In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Goodwin Liu said both the majority and dissenting positions were reasonable. But he sided with the majority, saying that no one doubts that voters intended the deadline to be mandatory, but as for actually making that a realistic deadline on courts, no one can “wave a magic wand and make it so,” he said.
There are currently 748 inmates on death row, making it the largest in the country. California has not had an execution in 10 years, in part because of a continuing fight over the drug cocktail used to execute inmates and whether they cause excessive pain and suffering.
The state courts’ policymaking body, the Judicial Council, is currently revising rules on death penalty appeals to comply with Prop. 66. For that reason, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Ming Chin did not participate in the case, because they serve on the council, which was a defendant in the lawsuit.
They were replaced by two appeals court justices, Justice Ikola, of Santa Ana, and Justice Andrea Hoch, of Sacramento.
Case: Briggs v. Brown, No. S238309