Court of Appeal:
Legislators Did Not Intrude on Province of Judiciary
Majority: Lawmakers Properly Provided That Any Instance of Racism at Trial Is Reversible Error
Dissenter: It’s Up to Courts to Decide If a ‘Miscarriage of Justice’ Has Occurred
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Legislature’s pronouncement that an instance of racial bias in a criminal trial is never a harmless error does not violate the state Constitution or separation of powers by taking from the courts the prerogative of determining what constitutes a “miscarriage of justice,” Div. Six of the Court of Appeal for this district declared yesterday, over a forceful dissent.
The majority opinion, by Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert, upheld this proclamation in the Racial Justice Act (“RJA”):
“[R]acism in any form or amount, at any stage of a criminal trial, is intolerable, inimical to a fair criminal justice system, is a miscarriage of justice under article VI of the California Constitution, and violates the laws and Constitution of the State of California.”
Gilbert, in whose opinion Justice Hernaldo J. Baltodano joined, said:
“Article VI, section 13 does not prohibit the Legislature from making this presumptively constitutional determination.”
Art. IV, §13 provides:
“No judgment shall be set aside, or new trial granted, in any cause, on the ground of misdirection of the jury, or of the improper admission or rejection of evidence, or for any error as to any matter of pleading, or for any error as to any matter of procedure, unless, after an examination of the entire cause, including the evidence, the court shall be of the opinion that the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.”
Presumption of Constitutionality
“Because the Legislature has the entire law-making authority of the state, any doubts concerning its power to act legislatively are resolved in favor of the Legislature’s action….The presumption of constitutionality is even stronger where the Legislature enacts a statute with the relevant state constitutional provisions in mind.”
“We further note that nothing in article VI, section 13 of the California Constitution prohibits the Legislature from defining certain errors as a miscarriage of justice. The constitutional provision empowers reviewing courts to assess the underlying facts of and procedures employed in each case to determine whether an error impacted the outcome. It also limits the court’s power to set aside a judgment or order a new trial in the absence of a miscarriage of justice….
“But article VI, section 13 of the California Constitution does not limit, or even mention, the plenary law-making authority of Legislature. It has exercised that authority here to declare that racially discriminatory language used during trial constitutes a miscarriage of justice within the meaning of article VI, section 13. Because the state constitution does not limit the Legislature’s power to define a miscarriage of justice, we must conclude it has properly exercised its authority to do so here.”
The prosecutor in the case had made various references to the defendant’s skin tone and, in her closing argument, mentioned that the accused murderer, Akeem Simmons, had “bragged about all the women he was able to fool with his good looks, and he admitted to having an ambiguous ethnic presentation and that people that don’t know him think he’s something other than Black.”
The Office of Attorney General agreed that the conduct was violative of Penal Code §745, created by the RJA. The opinion reverses the conviction and remands for further proceedings.
Gilbert commented at the outset of his opinion:
“We acknowledge the dissent’s cogent argument that the RJA violates article VI because section 13 states that it is the province of the court to decide whether an error results in a miscarriage of justice. We are hopeful, indeed confident, that our Supreme Court will resolve this issue…soon.”
The dissenter, Justice Kenneth Yegan protested:
“It is…emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary, not the Legislature, to determine what constitutes a ‘miscarriage of justice’ within the meaning of section 13. The Legislature cannot dismantle California’s separation of powers doctrine by dictating to the judiciary how the California Constitution should be construed.”
“The United States or California Supreme Court ordinarily decides whether an error is structural. Except for the RJA, I am aware of no instance in the history of California law where the Legislature has purported to define what constitutes structural error.
“The violation here of the RJA cannot be characterized as a structural error or defect….There is no doubt that any violation of the RJA is harmless in this case. The majority does not opine on this issue which surely lurks below the surface of its opinion.”
“In enacting the RJA, the Legislature’s goal was ‘to eliminate racial bias from California’s criminal justice system,’ ‘to ensure that race plays no role at all in seeking or obtaining convictions or in sentencing,’ and ‘to provide remedies that will eliminate racially discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system....’….The Legislature’s goal is laudable, but to achieve that goal it has resorted to an extreme unconstitutional measure that may wreak havoc on the criminal justice system.”
Noting that the Office of Attorney General agrees with the defendant, Yegan said a petition for review is unlikely, and urged that the California Supreme Court grant review on its own motion.
The case is People v. Simmons, B309921.
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