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Cal. Supreme Ct. Allows 'Directive' Deadlines for Death Penalty Appeals

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 24, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019
Last November, Californians passed on the opportunity to abolish the death penalty in Golden State, and instead voted in favor a measure meant to expedite executions. Proposition 66, referred to as a measure to "mend not end" capital punishment in the state, ostensibly set a five-year deadline on court appeals from death row inmates.

One such inmate challenged the law, saying in part, that it violates the separation of powers doctrine by interfering with the courts' discretion and ability to hear and resolve capital appeals and habeas corpus petitions. But the California Supreme Court today upheld the new provisions, relying on the interpretation that the deadline is "directive rather than mandatory."

Embracing Change

Death penalty advocates and opponents both conceded California's appeals system was broken. As the Sacramento Bee noted:

Condemned inmates in California currently languish for decades and are more likely to die of natural causes than from lethal injection. There are nearly 750 inmates on death row and only 13 have been executed since 1978 -- the last in 2006. It now takes up to five years for death row inmates to get an attorney, and it can take upward of 25 years to exhaust appeals.

So the state supreme court allowed many of Proposition 66's provisions to stand, like expanding the pool of lawyers that take death penalty appeals, assigning those attorneys almost immediately after sentencing, and shifting certain appeals to trial court judges.

Rejecting Deadlines

What the California Supreme Court wasn't OK with was a hard and fast deadline on the appeals process:

Following nine decades of precedent, we too decline to infer that lawmakers intended strict adherence to a fixed deadline that would undermine the courts' authority as a separate branch of government. It is far from certain that the voters contemplated such a result. Nothing in the Proposition 66 suggests that short shrift should be given to the decisionmaking process, or that capital posttrial review proceedings should dominate dockets to the point that other cases would be left to languish. In the absence of clearer indications that this was the voters' intent, we will not presume they meant to hamper the courts in the conduct of their business.

Rather than infer that the five-year deadline was mandatory, and thus throw out the measure entirely, the court instead interpreted the language as "directive only," and as "an exhortation to the parties and the courts to handle cases as expeditiously as is consistent with the fair and principled administration of justice."

While the death penalty lives on in California, the five-year deadline on a condemned person's appeal does not.

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