Thursday, December 6, 2001
Proposition 21 Breaches Judicial Independence, Lawyer Tells State Supreme Court
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
The lawyer for a San Diego teenager facing trial in adult criminal court for what prosecutors say was a brutal hate crime told the state Supreme Court yesterday that Proposition 21 unconstitutionally deprives judges of the discretion to select juvenile or adult court for the youth.
Attorney William W. LaFond urged the justices to invalidate a key portion of the initiative, adopted overwhelming by voters last year.
“The allocation of powers among the branches is not a policy decision” for voters, La Fond told the court. “It is of constitutional dimension.”
But a San Diego deputy district attorney, prosecuting La Fond’s client, Morgan Manduley, and seven other teenagers accused in the beatings of farm workers at a migrant camp, urged the court to toss aside an appeals court ruling from early this year and uphold the initiative.
“The bottom line is that decisions on fitness [to be tried in juvenile court] are fundamentally political and moral in nature” and not judicial, San Diego Deputy District Attorney Thomas F. McArdle said.
The eight youths have been in custody since last year, when San Diego prosecutors exercised their new power under Proposition 21 to file directly in adult court and avoid a judicial “fitness hearing.” 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.
Prosecutors called the attack one of the worst hate crimes in San Diego County history. Officials said the defendants, ages 14 to 17, threw rocks at the workers and fired pellet guns while subjecting the victims to racial insults. One was left for dead.
The wide attention the case has drawn was underscored by the presence of television cameras in the Ronald Reagan State Building courtroom—the first time Supreme Court proceedings have been televised since 1995.
Proposition 21 was criticized by opponents as being far too complicated and confusing for voters, wrapping into a single initiative new laws changing how gang crimes, as well as youth crimes, are prosecuted and adding amendments to the Three Strikes law as well.
San Diego Deputy Public Defender Jo Pastore, representing one of Manduley’s co-defendants, told the justices that the entire initiative must fall because it violated the single-subject rule—the California constitutional clause mandating that no ballot measure encompass more than one subject.
Pastore noted that Proposition 21, widely publicized as a youth crime measure, also included changes to laws on wiretapping—a section she called a “rogue provision that has nothing to do with gangs or juveniles.”
It was a point emphasized by Justice Kathryn Werdegar, who noted that the measure also included a section dealing with continuous sexual abuse of a juvenile—a law that generally would apply to adults and might take in juvenile defendants only occasionally.
But Chief Justice Ronald George cited a report asserting that juveniles frequently sexually victimize other juveniles.
“Isn’t the crucial thing that everything in there affects juveniles, even if it also affects adults?” he asked.
The justices traditionally have been reluctant to take any action that would infringe on the rights of voters to make law.
But the court, while politically conservative, also has shown a willingness to defend judicial power. 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.
It was that narrower issue—judicial discretion in sentencing matters—on which LaFond focused.
The decision to charge in juvenile or adult court is in essence a sentencing decision within the ambit of judicial power and cannot be transferred to prosecutors, he said.
McArdle countered that there was no inherent judicial discretion on the question that voters could not take away, since specialized treatment of offenders by a juvenile court is not a constitutional right but the product of a 1909 act of the Legislature.
Justice Marvin Baxter challenged LaFond on the issue.
“If the people or the Legislature came up with a much more extreme proposition that all these [juvenile defendants] must be tried in the criminal court and not give the prosecutor discretion…would that satisfy your concerns?” he asked LaFond.
“It would,” the defense lawyer admitted, subject to constraints of the cruel and unusual punishment provisions of the Eighth Amendment.
“The problem is that they have gone half-way,” LaFond said.
LaFond argued that the issue was unlike the question of a “wobbler”—a crime that prosecutors have been held to have unfettered discretion to charge as a misdemeanor or as a felony, even though the decision means wide differences in sentencing.
The question of a youth’s “eligibility” for juvenile court treatment may properly be made by prosecutors, he said, since there are statutory criteria against which to measure, such as the defendant’s age.
But he argued that it is a separate—and wholly judicial—question as to whether a particular youth is “amenable” to trial in juvenile court. There are five factors which judges in fitness hearings have considered in determining whether a youth is amenable, such as prior trouble with the law and careful guidance at home.
Proposition 21 erased the criteria for making that inherently judicial decision, LaFond said, in favor of a prosecutor’s arbitrary decision.
“The judicial power is meant to consider the particular characteristic of an individual person,” he said.
A decision from the Supreme Court is expected by April.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company