David Carrillo and Brandon Stracener argue in the Daily Journal that Governor Newsom should commute all California death sentences to life without parole. By one recent account, there are 674 condemned prisoners in the state.

Carrillo and Stracener note that, for possibly half of the death row inmates (those who have been “twice convicted of a felony”), Newsom cannot grant clemency unilaterally, but, according to the state Constitution, must get at least four Supreme Court justices to sign off on the action.

They say, “Making and requesting blanket commutation is possible, achievable, and compelled by circumstance.” But they also say that the court’s role in the process would take some time: “With several hundred inmates to consider commuting, the court will be hard-pressed to move quickly past the threshold issue of a mass request to processing so many files [before Newsom’s final term expires].” I’m not sure about the timing problem.

A blanket commutation request might not lead to individual evaluations of each twice-convicted prisoner. Instead, under its stated policy, the court might consider only whether commuting all death sentences would be an abuse of power. That would be a tough call, but a singular one.

Also, just weeks before the end of the last Governor’s final term, the Los Angeles Times reported that then-Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye “said the court would do whatever possible to quickly review Gov. Jerry Brown’s final clemency requests — even if he asks for commutations for all death row prisoners,” which she characterized as a “heavy lift.”

Of course, this might all be just an academic question. Soon after Newsom imposed a temporary moratorium on executions in California in 2019, an Associated Press article reported he was “considering commuting death sentences as ‘a next step’ once state Supreme Court justices explain why they blocked 10 non-death commutations sought by former Gov. Jerry Brown” in 2018.  (Link added.) But the court has shown no indication that it will ever offer an explanation. (See here and here.) If the explanation remains a prerequisite to an attempt to empty California’s death row — or if the lack of stated reasons remains a convenient excuse for not acting — then the court might never be put to the test.


The Supreme Court’s part in any possible commutation of all California death sentences

Governor Newsom’s death penalty actions shouldn’t affect the Supreme Court . . . yet

Claiming “racial discrimination infects the administration of California’s death penalty,” Governor submits amicus brief supporting defendant’s appeal

Motions fail to pry loose Supreme Court’s clemency denial reasons

“Court’s rejection of Brown’s pardons demands explanation”

“Few clues to state high court’s crackdown on governor’s clemency grants”

LA Times criticizes Supreme Court for not explaining clemency blocks. Can the court still remedy that?

“Jerry Brown Has the Power to Save 740 Lives. He Should Use It.”

Despite prosecutors’ fears, still no evidence of mass (or any) death penalty commutations

Supreme Court explains its role in evaluating gubernatorial pardons and commutations