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The California Supreme Court today upheld Proposition 66, which will radically change the state’s current death penalty law, and will most likely open the door for executions to resume after a 10-year hiatus.

Today’s decision was the result of a lawsuit brought by former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp and Ron Briggs, and filed on their behalf by the law firm Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe immediately after Prop 66 passed. They argued that the initiative:

  • Violates the single-subject rule, which requires that a proposition can change only one subject under an initiative;
  • Illegally interferes with the courts’ power to hear original petitions for writ of habeas corpus (allowing inmates to show innocence or that trials were unconstitutional);
  • Violates equal protection principles by treating capital prisoners differently from other prisoners with respect to successive habeas corpus petitions;
  • Violates the “separation of powers” rules, which hold that the legislature or the people cannot dictate how the court conducts the court’s business. Separation of powers is related to “checks and balances,” a principle that ensures that one branch of government does not have more power than another.

The Court rejected all of the challenges in its decision. However, it said that the initiative’s requirement that death penalty appeals should be completed within five years could not be deemed mandatory.

“Its provision that the courts ‘shall complete the state appeal and the initial state habeas corpus review in capital cases’ within five years is properly construed as an exhortation to the parties and the courts to handle cases as expeditiously as is consistent with the fair and principled administration of justice,” the Court said.

Christina Von Der Ahe, an attorney with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, who argued the case on behalf of Briggs and Van de Kamp, said, “We are gratified that the California Supreme Court recognized the unconstitutionality of Proposition 66’s attempt to impose unrealistic deadlines on the courts’ consideration of capital appeals. While the Court did not strike down those deadlines, it rendered them toothless by construing them as permissive goals, rather than as mandatory deadlines.”

Robert M. Sanger, a criminal defense attorney and DPF Board Member, who filed an amicus brief to the lawsuit, said today’s decision, while disheartening, did leave the door open to challenges in individual cases. “All issues, whether raised or not in this case, can and will still be raised in individual cases when they violate an individual’s rights, and, in fact, 66 may have actually created additional opportunities for people sentenced to death to challenge their sentences,” he said.

There are currently 748 people on San Quentin’s death row. California’s last execution was in 2006.

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