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Prop. 66 Ruling: Death Penalty Appeal Time Limit Not Enforceable

In November 2016, California voters passed Proposition 66 which sought to speed up the time between a death penalty conviction and sentence and the actual execution. Most notably, Prop. 66 imposed a mandatory five-year deadline for the California courts to finish a capital appeal. Almost immediately after passing, opponents filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the proposition, and specifically, that five-year deadline.

After reviewing the challenge, the California Supreme Court issued their ruling, in Briggs v. Brown, effectively striking down the five-year deadline (at least for the time being), while upholding other portions of the proposition.

Time Limit is Directive, Not Mandatory

As the Court noted, Prop. 66 did not provide for enforcement of the five-year deadline, and imposing such a deadline could be devastating upon the many state courts' calendars. It explained:

"Much depends on the funding made available by the Legislature. What cannot be permitted is the material impairment of judicial functions by any statute. The superior courts must be allowed to exercise their ultimate control or discretion over the order in which the cases pending before [them] should be considered."

In addition to the budget concerns, the Court left the door open as widely as possible when it came to the courts within the state controlling their own dockets. It further explained, referring to the five-year time limit, that:

"They may serve as benchmarks to guide courts, if meeting the limits is reasonably possible. What is reasonably possible, however, will depend on a variety of factors, both structural and case-specific."

Specifically, the Court concluded that:

"... the five-year review limit in section 190.6, subdivision (d) is directive only. Its provision that the courts "shall complete the state appeal and the initial state habeas corpus review in capital cases" within five years is properly construed 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."

Evidently, clearing the current backlog of cases -- if started now and were the near exclusive focus of the state's Supreme Court -- would take a full five years.

The Will of the People

While the Court refused to read any enforcement mechanism, penalty, or consequence for not meeting the five year deadline, it clearly recognized the will of the voters. As such, it explained that the Judicial Council's monitoring and review duties will be ongoing, and as more is learned about the process of capital appeals, the implementation of the new laws will be ongoing as well.

"The time limits reflect the voters' will, which we respect. However, they were presented to the voters by the proponents of Proposition 66 without the benefit of hearings or research exploring their feasibility or their impact on the rest of the courts' work. As the concurring opinion explains, these are issues of considerable complexity and difficulty. The implementation of Proposition 66 will necessarily be an ongoing process of exploration and adaptation. The Judicial Council is tasked with monitoring the review process established by the initiative. (§ 190.6, subd. (d).) Its supervision will shed light on the achievability and efficacy of the measure's extensive reforms."

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