The California Supreme Court on Friday evening allowed Gov. Jerry Brown and his political allies to begin gathering voter signatures for a November ballot measure to revamp prison parole policy, a temporary victory until the justices determine whether state officials properly followed election laws.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye issed a temporary stay of a judge's ruling that had stopped Brown's ballot measure dead in its tracks.
Minutes later, Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris issued a formal title and summary for the proposal, thus clearing the way for signature gathering to begin this weekend.
Brown unveiled his plan in late January, one highlighted by an overhaul of the rules regarding parole eligibility for inmates serving time for nonviolent crimes. Prisoners who earn enough good behavior credits or participate in education programs would be eligible for early release.
The governor added his plan to a proposed ballot initiative that was already being vetted -- one that originally dealt only with juvenile justice.
Sacramento Judge Shellyane Chang ruled on Wednesday, in a case brought by the California District Attorneys Assn., that Harris should not have allowed Brown to submit his substantial revisions to an existing initiative without additional review.
Brown formally filed his appeal of that ruling to the state Supreme Court on Thursday, warning the justices that California's long-term ability to comply with a federal court order to reduce its prison population hinged on voters being given a chance to approve his plan.
The initiative, the governor said in the filing, "would provide the state with a durable solution to prison overcrowding that enhances public safety and avoids the indiscriminate release of prisoners by federal court order."
On Friday, attorneys representing Brown submitted a letter to the justices warning that even a ruling as soon as Tuesday could "likely make it impossible to qualify" the initiative for the fall ballot. They asked the high court to allow the initiative to be circulated for voter signatures before a final ruling is made on the case's merits.
The district attorneys who brought the case called the notion of a temporary stay "unprecedented" in a Friday afternoon filing. And they maintained that for such a complex proposal, the governor had simply waited too late.
"The urgency is all of his own making," wrote plaintiff's attorney Tom Hiltachk.
The justices aren't scheduled until sometime next week to consider the full merits of whether the lower court should have blocked Brown's measure. They are no stranger to the governor, who has appointed three of them since being elected in 2011.
"If the superior court's order stands," Brown's campaign attorneys wrote in their appeal, "the people will have been deprived of their right to use the initiative process to remedy problems that urgently require attention now."