Courtesy of James R. Touchstone, Esq. & Keith F. Collins, Esq. of Jones & Mayer
On August 24, 2017, the California Supreme Court denied a writ petition challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 66 (“Prop 66”), which was approved by California voters in November 2016. Prop 66, among other things, created a 5-year time limit to complete all post-trial appellate proceedings in death penalty cases. While the Court upheld the new law, it determined that the 5-year time limit was not a hard-and-fast deadline, but was rather a directive to courts to resolve all post-trial appellate matters in capital cases as expeditiously as possible.
The Court noted that Prop 66, the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016, was intended to facilitate the enforcement of judgements and achieve cost savings in capital cases. One of the ways Prop 66 seeks to accomplish this goal is by imposing a 5-year deadline on post-trial appeals and other proceedings in death penalty cases. Petitioner Ron Briggs challenged the constitutionality of this provision, arguing, among other things, that it violated principles of separation of powers because it imposes a “mandatory” deadline by which all post-trial matters must be resolved, and therefore, “invades the courts’ inherent authority to balance the matters before them in a way that is fair to all litigants.”
In December, 2016 the Court stayed enforcement of Prop 66 pending the outcome of this case.
After disposing of a number of constitutional challenges raised by Petitioner, the Court addressed the doctrine of separation of powers, as it applied to what appeared to be mandatory time limits imposed by Prop 66. The Court ultimately declined to interpret Prop 66’s 5-year deadline as mandatory, instead finding that this language is merely a “directive” to the courts to expeditiously resolve post-trial matters.
The Court explained that even though the ballot materials informed voters that this 5-year review limit is mandatory, and even though the statute itself uses mandatory language, the statute does not contain a workable means of enforcing the limit. The Court declined to re-write the statute to include an effective enforcement mechanism, since this would “pose serious separation of powers problems.” Further, when courts undertake the rare task of reforming a statute, they do so only to “preserve a statute’s constitutionality, not to threaten it.”
Rather than strike down the mandatory language of the 5-year review limit as an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers, the Court followed precedent by construing the language to allow courts to maintain discretionary control over their cases. Despite the mandatory language and informational materials provided to the voters, the Court would not infer that “lawmakers intended strict adherence to a fixed deadline that would undermine the courts’ authority as a separate branch of government.” The Court noted that the directives of Prop 66 provided guidance to the courts as to the will of the electorate that appellate matters in capital cases be decided as expeditiously as possible.
HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY
In denying the writ challenging Prop 66, the Supreme Court lifted the stay on the new law and upheld its constitutionality. However, in doing so, it relaxed application of one of Prop 66’s key provisions, namely, the 5-year appellate review time limit after trial in capital cases. As such, the 5-year review limit is not a hard-and-fast rule that courts must adhere to. Rather, it is merely a directive that reviewing courts should expedite resolution of post-trial proceedings in capital cases as quickly as possible. Accordingly, it is unclear at this juncture if Prop 66 will have the salutary practical effect of expediting appellate matters in capital cases, as voted upon and approved by the electorate.
As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact us at (714) 446 – 1400 or via email at email@example.com [for James Touchstone] or firstname.lastname@example.org [for Keith Collins].
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 Ron Briggs v. Edmund G. Brown, Jr., S238309, August 24, 2017.
 Pen. Code § 190.6(d).