On Tuesday, the California Supreme Court heard arguments over whether a voter-approved initiative passed last November to speed up the death penalty process is constitutional.
Proposition 66, a ballot initiative titled “Death Penalty Procedures Initiatives Statutes,” expedites the death penalty process by setting a five-year deadline for death penalty appeals to be heard.
Elisabeth Semel, a professor of law at the UC Berkeley School of Law and director of Boalt’s Death Penalty Clinic, said she does not believe the initiative is a good solution for dealing with the backlog of death row appeals the state supreme court has yet to hear. Semel said it takes an average of 15 years for a direct death row appeal to be decided by the California Supreme Court.
“The State Supreme Court currently has a backlog of about 380 death row cases,” Semel said. “Under the terms of this proposition, the court would have to hear these cases about three times faster. There’s nothing in this initiative (with) a game plan to make it possible.”
Prop. 66 was one of two initiatives on state ballots related to the death penalty in November 2016 — the first, Proposition 62, called for a repeal of the death penalty. Prop. 66 passed by a narrow margin of 51.1 percent to 48.9 percent, whereas Prop. 62 failed to pass.
Ron Briggs, whose father, former State Sen. John Briggs, authored a 1978 ballot initiative to expand the death penalty, and former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp filed the petition which challenges the constitutionality of Prop. 66. The California Supreme Court has 90 days to decide the case.
According to Semel, during oral arguments, the plaintiffs contended the new time limits infringe upon the court’s authority to manage it’s own cases — this would undermine the state court’s authority and violate the separation of powers. Semel said plaintiffs also argued the expedited death penalty process denies equal protection to death row inmates.
Terry Martin, an attorney for intervenor Californians To Mend, Not End, The Death Penalty – No on Prop. 62, Yes on Prop. 66, said the proposition was “absolutely constitutional.” According to Martin, the five-year time limit did not restrict the court’s authority because they were “aspirational” rather than “mandatory.”
“I’m confident that the Supreme Court will uphold the constitutionality of the measure,” Martin said. “I expect the court to rule with the people of California.”
Semel maintained skepticism about both the constitutionality and efficacy of Prop. 66.
A both faster and more reliable state death penalty system would “require many millions of dollars” to reform, according to Semel — the reforms being proposed in Prop. 66 would result in a death penalty system that is only “faster and cheaper.”
“The system is stuck because we don’t have the necessary resources,” Semel said. “You can have a system that is either faster, cheaper and less accurate, or faster, more expensive and more reliable.