Appeals Court Overturns Rulings Against Prison Board
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Sixth District Court of Appeal yesterday overturned a series of rulings by a Santa Clara Superior Court judge which would have required the state’s Board of Prison Terms to produce thousands of records to justify parole decisions.
Judge James C. Emerson issued the rulings in four cases in August and September of last year. In his orders to show cause, Emerson suggested that the board might be violating Penal Code Sec. 3041(a) by denying parole to prison inmates in nearly all of the cases that come before it.
Sec. 3041(a) requires the board to meet with each inmate a year before the inmate’s “minimum eligible parole release date,” and provides that the board “shall normally set a parole release date as provided.”
Emerson also suggested that in the cases of the four inmates, who filed habeas petitions, the board might have “recharacterized” their crimes as first degree murder as a basis for denying parole, even though the four had entered negotiated guilty pleas to lesser charges. He ordered the board to produce the “decision” pages of every parole hearing it held in 2003, so that the petitioners could use them as evidence for claims of due process violations.
In overturning the orders, the appellate panel did not reach the issue of whether the board acted improperly, though it noted that a state high court decision issued after Emerson made his rulings—In re Dannenberg (2005) 34 Cal.4th 1061—”clarified that the Board proceeds lawfully when it finds an inmate unsuitable for parole because the circumstances of the commitment offense indicate exceptional callousness and cruelty with trivial provocation.”
Justice Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian, writing for the court, also pointed out that the state Supreme Court has agreed to review In re Cortinas (2004) 120 Cal.App.4th 1153, a case upon which Emerson relied for the proposition that a statistical evidentiary showing would be required to support any claim of a due process violation.
But she said the court was granting the writ sought by state officials only on procedural grounds. Emerson, she said, erred in issuing orders to show cause based on “claims not expressly or implicitly raised in the original habeas petition or supported by the factual allegations in the original habeas petition.”
By reaching issues not properly raised by the four habeas petitions, the justice explained, Emerson exceeded his authority under Penal Code Sec. 1484, which permits a judge hearing a petition for habeas relief to “dispose of” the party bringing the petition “as the justice of the case may require.”
But Emerson can, under that section, “invite amended or supplemental habeas petitions in the interests of justice,” Bamattre-Manoukian declared. If the amended petitions properly raise the issues the judge identified as posed by the board’s practices, and he determines they have merit under currently applicable law, he could then issue an order to show cause, she explained.
The justice said Emerson also erred in attaching an order he had issued in April 2004 in a different case to his orders to show cause in three of the habeas cases. In those cases, Emerson ordered the state to address the issues raised by the his earlier order, which granted habeas relief to a prisoner on the basis that in denying him parole the board had improperly “recharacteriz[ed]” his crime as first degree murder, even though he had pled guilty only to second degree murder.
“[W]e conclude that the trial court’s authority under section 1484 does not permit the superior court to issue an order to show cause that requires the Board to respond to the cases and analysis included in another order issued in an unrelated case that raises some different claims,” Bamattre-Manoukian wrote.
But she rejected the state’s contention that, since no party had requested the discovery Emerson ordered, the judge had acted beyond his power in requiring it.
The discovery order had to be vacated along with the orders to show cause themselves, the justice said, and could be valid only if necessary to provide support for a properly framed claim for habeas relief, but were not undermined by the absence of a discovery demand made by a party.
“[S]ection 1484 provides broad powers that we believe encompass the power to order discovery whether or not a party has made a discovery request,” Bamattre-Manoukian asserted, citing statutory language giving trial courts the “full power and authority to require and compel the attendance of witnesses, by process of subpoena and attachment, and to do and perform all other acts and things necessary to a full and fair hearing and a determination of the case.”
“[W]e determine that the superior court has the power to order discovery when requested by a party, or in the absence of a discovery request by a party, once the order to show cause has issued and discovery jurisdiction has been conferred. On those rare occasions where no party has requested discovery and the superior court believes that discovery is necessary to ensure a full and fair hearing and a determination of the case, the court has the discretion to compel the necessary discovery.”
Justices Nathan D. Mihara and Richard J. McAdams concurred.
The case is The Board of Prison Terms v. Superior Court (Ngo), 05 S.O.S. 3358.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company