Friday, March 1, 2002
High Court Rejects Constitutional Challenge to Juvenile Crime Measure
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday upheld a sweeping juvenile justice initiative that gives prosecutors the discretion judges formerly had to select between juvenile or adult criminal court for accused youths.
Overturning an appeals court, the justices rejected the assertion of eight San Diego-area youths that Proposition 21, adopted by California voters in March 2000, violates separation-of-powers principles by effectively eliminating a judge’s full range of disposition options for youthful offenders.
In a 56-page opinion, Chief Justice Ronald George wrote that a prosecutor’s decision to file charges against a minor in criminal court “is well within the established charging authority of the executive branch” even though it may as a consequence limit a judge’s options.
The court also rejected due process and equal protection challenges, as well as a claim that Proposition 21 violated the “single subject” constitutional mandate for initiatives.
George wrote that the proposition, which amends numerous gang statutes and other criminal laws, covered the single subject of crime.
“These provisions are germane to the initiative’s common purpose of addressing gang-related and juvenile crime,” George wrote.
Dissenting from the separation-of-powers portion of the opinion, Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote that judges should retain their power to select between juvenile court, where offenders can be sentenced to serve only up until they reach age 25, and criminal court, where they could get life terms.
Giving the authority to the executive branch leaves prosecutors with power “unrestrained by legislative standards and susceptible to arbitrary exercise,” Kennard wrote.
Proposition 21 was put on the ballot with the sponsorship of ex-Gov. Pete Wilson, who said it was a necessary step to combat a rising tide of ever-more brutal crimes committed by juveniles as young as 14. The measure received the strong support of current Gov. Gray Davis.
Opponents said the measure was far too draconian, especially in its reduction of judicial discretion.
The eight youths in the case that went to the high court stand accused of brutal hate crimes against a migrant farm worker. Officials said the defendants, ages 14 to 17 at the time, threw rocks at the workers and fired pellet guns while subjecting the victims to racial insults. One was left for dead.
The youths have been in custody since 2000, when San Diego prosecutors exercised their new power to file directly in adult court and avoid a judicial “fitness hearing”—the hearing at which judges would determine whether youths were “fit” for juvenile court disposition.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal stopped proceedings from moving to adult court after ruling that Proposition 21 violates the state Constitution’s separation-of-powers clause.
The state Supreme Court heard arguments Dec. 5 in a hearing that was marked by the presence of television cameras in the Ronald Reagan State Building courtroom. It was the first time Supreme Court proceedings have been televised since 1995.
San Diego prosecutors hailed the ruling. Anthony Lovett, a deputy district attorney in San Diego County, called the initiative a “political, social and moral” voter experiment that only time can gauge.
One attorney for the youths, Charles Sevilla, said the decision was an “unfortunate result.”
“We shall now see how the exercise of ... raw power affects the futures of thousands upon thousands of juveniles in the years to come,” he said.
But Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley said his office would “proceed cautiously.”
“We will continue to seek judicial review through fitness hearings on most of the discretionary filings,” Cooley said in a prepared statement. “We intend to exercise our discretion on the worst of the worst of these minors, however, and directly file on them in adult court.”
For the most serious violent crimes, such as murder and sexual assaults, Proposition 21 mandates direct filing in adult criminal court, without discretion by either a prosecutor or a judge, to use the juvenile court system.
Cooley said his office directly filed on those minors but over the last year has sought review through the juvenile court on the discretionary filings.
“The court declared the vast majority of the minors to be unfit to be tried as juveniles and the cases went on to adult court,” he said.
The Supreme Court in recent years has ruled the other way in trying to find the balance between prosecutors and judges. In the 1996 Romero decision, the court limited the impact of the voter-approved Three-Strikes law and returned to judges the power to strike a prior crime for sentencing purposes in the interests of justice.
The court suggested yesterday that judges may retain a similar power to reject criminal court disposition for a given youth in the interests of justice.
Justices Carlos Moreno and Kathryn Werdegar each authored separate concurring opinions focused on the single-subject rule. Moreno said he agreed there was a sufficient “functional relationship” between the various portions of Proposition 21, but he warned:
“The less rigorously we enforce the single-subject rule, the more we are compelled to rely on implausible assumptions about voters’ understanding of a ballot measure’s intricacies.”
The case is Manduley v. Superior Court, 02 S.O.S. 1040.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company