A Capital Idea? : Holding Up Justices' Pay in Death Penalty Cases Proposed

Times Staff Writer

Assembly Republicans on Wednesday proposed legislation that would suspend the pay of state Supreme Court justices if the court takes too long to decide appeals in death penalty cases.

The GOP lawmakers said they plan to introduce the legislation in August and simultaneously to start an initiative campaign to place an identical measure on the ballot in November, 1986, when voters will decide whether to retain Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and four other members of the court.

The proposal, by Assemblyman Ross Johnson of La Habra and Assembly Minority Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale, would combine several pending or defeated pieces of legislation into one package aimed at expanding the death penalty and expediting its enforcement.

Former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian, a potential contender for state attorney general in 1986, is also involved in the effort and wrote much of the legislation.

Johnson said the proposal, if approved by the voters, would hold the justices' "feet to the fire," forcing them to move more quickly on death penalty cases.

"That's the message to the California Supreme Court in this legislation," Johnson said. "If you don't do your job, you won't get paid."

The chief justice is paid about $99,000 annually while associate justices receive about $94,000.

Specifically, the legislation would:

- Require that the court decide automatic death penalty appeals within 90 days after oral arguments are completed and written briefs are submitted. If the justices fail to do so, their pay would be withheld until the case is decided, at which time they would be paid retroactively. Currently, the justices are required to decide cases within 90 days after they are submitted, but the high court has sidestepped that requirement by using its own definition of when a case is "submitted."

- Require the court to give precedence to death penalty cases over all other appeals, both criminal and civil.

- Make murders committed during sodomy, mayhem, child abuse and flight from a felony automatically punishable by the death penalty.

- Increase the sentence for first-degree murder in non-death penalty cases from 25 years to life to 35 years to life.

Several of those provisions were included in a bill by Assemblyman Gary Condit (D-Ceres) that fell one vote short of passage in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee earlier this year. Johnson could have provided that vote but refused to support the measure because he said it did not go far enough in expanding the death penalty.

Criticized by ACLU

The Republicans' proposal was assailed by Marjorie Swartz, lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the death penalty in any form.

"If you're going to take someone's life away, it should be done with the fullest and fairest review process," Swartz said. "I can't believe even supporters of the death penalty would want to execute someone before it is certain there were no errors, that the person was actually guilty and that there was a fair trial. That's what the review process allows."

As of mid-June, there were 32 death penalty appeals before the court that had been fully argued and briefed but not decided. Another 32 cases had been briefed but not argued orally, and there were roughly 95 cases in which death sentences had been handed down by trial court judges but no written briefs had been filed with the court.

In the oldest pending case, arguments were completed and briefs filed in October, 1982. But in 28 of the 32 cases awaiting a decision, arguments and briefs were completed after January, 1984.

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