Tuesday, November 20, 2007
S.C. Proposes Amending Constitution To Send Death Cases to C.A.
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Citing an increase in capital cases in the past two decades that has led to a backlog in appeals, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George announced yesterday that the court’s justices have unanimously endorsed a state constitutional amendment to allow the court to transfer death penalty cases to panels of the Court of Appeal.
The proposal would amend Art. VI, Sec. 12 of the California Constitution to eliminate the restriction on transfer of capital cases to the Court of Appeal, and allow the Supreme Court to summarily affirm Court of Appeal decisions in such casers where no error affected the judgment, no split among panels required a uniform decision, and no important questions of law remained unresolved.
In a statement, George said that the proposal would provide that appeals of capital cases would still be filed in the Supreme Court, but would then be presumptively transferred to the Court of Appeal for the district from which the judgment arose after briefing unless the Supreme Court determined retention is appropriate. The Supreme Court would review the court of appeal’s decision and, if it determined that summary affirmation was not appropriate, hold oral argument and issue its own written decision.
George said that the proposal was the result of months of study and consideration. He said it was designed to promote the public’s and the litigants’ interests in both fair and reasonably prompt disposition of capital appeals; broaden the review process while ensuring that the court determines penalty judgments to be legally correct; permit the Supreme Court to devote its limited time and resources to significant capital issues and to other important appellate litigation; and allow the court to address discrete issues in capital cases, as warranted, by reviewing selected issues of significance to other litigation.
The Supreme Court would be able to transfer up to approximately 30 fully briefed cases annually in the first few years after adoption of the proposal, requiring each Court of Appeal justice to prepare an opinion on one capital case every 3.5 years. The proposal’s changes would apply retroactively, rendering all pending undecided capital appeals subject to transfer to the Courts of Appeal.
Gareth Lacy, a spokesman for Attorney General Jerry Brown, said the office would not comment until its capital case coordinators had reviewed the proposal.
However, Gerald Uelmen, director of the Edwin A. Heafey Jr. Center for Trial and Appellate Advocacy at Santa Clara University School of Law and a veteran defense lawyer, cautioned that the proposal could inadvertently lead to an increase in the overall number of death penalty cases, and therefore appeals.
Although he called George’s proposal “a creative new approach” that could break the current logjam of death penalty cases and shave off as much as three to four years in current delays, Uelmen said that district attorneys historically had tended to ramp up use of the death penalty when the court started clearing its docket, and that the proposal could have a similar effect.
The Judicial Council said that George has had positive discussions concerning the proposal with the administrative presiding justices of the six appellate districts, and will further address the issue with them in a meeting on Dec. 3.
It also said that George has asked it to assist in the development of a Legislative Constitutional Amendment for placement on the November 2008 general election ballot, and to take steps to issue court rules governing timing and procedures for transfers that can be implemented upon adoption of the amendments.
The amendment would require a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of the Legislature.
The council said the Supreme Court is separately considering corresponding proposals to modify and improve capital-related habeas corpus procedures and increase the number of counsel qualified and willing to accept appointment in capital proceedings.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company