December 13, 2011

Proposed ballot measure would dramatically reduce the California Supreme Court’s criminal caseload by abolishing the death penalty

As we discussed at length in this post, the Supreme Court’s resources are heavily devoted to the resolution of death penalty appeals. This is because the California Constitution confers mandatory appellate jurisdiction on the Court when a judgment of death has been handed down. (Cal. Const., Art. VI, § 11.) This situation has persisted for years and, absent radical change, is unlikely to improve. At best, the Court is able to process about as many capital cases as it receives. One result is that the Court has granted fewer civil petitions for review in recent years than it probably otherwise would have. Another effect of the death penalty—and one not to be dismissed lightly in this era of massive state budget deficits—is that the penalty and its associated legal processes cost the state a great deal of money, between $120 million and $184 million annually, according to this in-depth Ventura County Star article.

The lengthy capital appellate process and its associated costs are among the reasons why, according to the Star, former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti “has become the lead spokesman for SAFE California,” which “is sponsoring a ballot initiative, now in the signature-gathering phase, that would ask voters next fall to eliminate the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.” The Star reports that SAFE California has thus far received more than $1.2 million in contributions, and Garcetti is confident the measure will be on the 2012 ballot.

Californians have historically supported the death penalty by about a two-to-one margin, and the Star quotes Dan Schnur, head of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and director of the Dornsife College-Los Angeles Times poll, as saying a marked shift in public sentiment would be needed before Californians would abolish it. But the Star also quotes Garcetti as saying people are “‘dumbfounded’” when they learn about the costs of capital punishment and are “‘desperate to find more efficient ways to spend our tax money.’”

We’ll hazard no guess about whether Californians’ attitudes toward the death penalty have changed along with the state’s budget outlook. But two things are fairly certain if SAFE California achieves its goal. First, the practice of law before the Supreme Court would change substantially, as the Court no longer would be required to review judgments of death and thus would be free to grant a far higher number of civil petitions for review than it has been able to grant in recent years. Second, there would be no shortage of places to spend the money saved, either in the judicial branch budget or elsewhere.

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