Opinion: California’s chief justice: ‘Life without means life without’


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Does Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye oppose the death penalty? That’s the way some observers on both sides of the debate took her statement in a Dec. 24 Los Angeles Times story by staff writer Maura Dolan. But no, the chief justice told The Times’ editorial board on Friday, she has no position on whether it ought to be the law in California. And she was surprised by some of the reaction.

There’s nothing wrong with a debate. It’s been done. And people bring great expertise to this area. So we shouldn’t be afraid of having that exchange.


This is the second post on Cantil-Sakauye’s discussion with the editorial board, including audio recordings of a portion of the discussion and partial transcripts. Read Monday’s post here, and return each day this week for discussions of the courts’ financial crisis and the independence of the state’s judicial branch.

What was the reaction to the chief justice’s statement in The Times regarding the death penalty?

Listen: What was the reaction to comments about the death penalty?

I have had mixed reaction, as you might imagine. I thought it was a fairly -- my statement was a fairly objective one. There’s nothing wrong with debate. There’s nothing wrong with discourse. That’s what moves us forward. That’s what may bring about change, may initiate change. So of course I received some very heated, emotional letters -- that I don’t disagree with the emotion behind -- but that was not my point or focus. And then I’ve also received, interesting enough, just as many if not more letters of support for courage, for encouraging a debate, for realizing and having a perspective that the state’s resources have to be reconsidered. We are in a different place than we were in ’78 and the ensuing years. There’s nothing wrong with a debate. It’s been done. And people bring great expertise to this area. So we shouldn’t be afraid of having that exchange.

What is your personal position on the death penalty?

Listen: Position on the death penalty


As any law, whether it be CEQA or MICRA, I don’t have a position personally about it. I’ve been a judge for a number of years. To see the law come down, [I] may or may not have feelings about it. But [I] realize it’s either the will of the people or will of the Legislature, signed by the governor ... which is derivative of the will of the people. So I don’t have a position. But I think that if more people were informed not only about resources but about time and about effectiveness -- and now we know from 1978 that life without [parole] means life without -- that we might be better informed to take another look.... We are reexamining old assumptions. Certainly that’s what I’m trying to do at the judicial branch. But we’re trying to do it in a careful, cautious fashion that doesn’t take, as has been said, a meat ax to the system.

If California keeps the death penalty, what is the fix for the backlog? Is it additional money, or is it changes in the structure of death penalty sentences and appeals?

Listen: Fixing the execution backlog

You can do both. For example I’ve received letters from, or had meetings set up or trying to set up meetings with, different legal organizations that represent [defendants] on capital appeals and habeas corpus. And they tell me, and they’re the experts, that more resources are needed in order to fully investigate these cases in the state system. Because when they go to the federal system and they’re not completely or fully or adequately -- and I realize those are subjective terms -- investigated, they come back to the state court system on those exhaustion petitions. And we end up redoing. So I think -- it wouldn’t surprise me that the fix is definitely resources and definitely structural change....

Would it erase the backlog if death penalty appeals were to go to the intermediate appellate courts instead of exclusively to the state Supreme Court?

Listen: Farming appeals to the intermediate courts

In my short year we’ve had those kinds of brief discussions, but we recognize the inherent problem is [that] before any farming [out to the Court of Appeal] can be done we need resources. Because the same issues that plague the Supreme Court, in terms of processing -- that is, lack of qualified counsel and investigation expenses and complaints -- will plague the Court of Appeal. So at least until those kinds of issues are resolved, there’s no sense at this time in talking about transferring it anywhere else. It would just move the problem.

Tomorrow: Insurgent trial judges and a bill to strip the Judicial Council of power


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--Robert Greene