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Death Penalty Cases Not Rushed, Lucas Says : State Chief Justice Rebuts Criticism of Court, Declares That Review Process Is Thorough

Times Staff Writer

Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, in a far-ranging defense of the state Supreme Court, denied Tuesday that its intensive effort to reduce a heavy caseload is forcing the court to rush death penalty decisions.

“I can say with some confidence that the process in California of reviewing death penalty cases is one of the most--if not the most--thorough processes in the United States,” he said. “We are not rushing these cases.”

Answering questions in a rare formal news conference, Lucas rebutted criticism made by defense attorneys and other commentators contending that the court is concentrating too heavily and acting too hastily on capital cases, while neglecting important civil issues.

Size of Backlog

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The new, more conservative court faces a backlog of more than 180 capital cases--representing nearly half its total docket. In an unprecedented attempt to reduce the load, it now has issued 55 death penalty decisions since the departure of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other justices defeated in the fall, 1986, election.

Lucas noted that the court in recent months had issued a number of wide-reaching civil rulings--for example, limiting bad-faith lawsuits against insurance companies, upholding sobriety checkpoints to catch drunk drivers and approving a new mandatory auto insurance law.

“We have not abandoned civil law,” Lucas told reporters gathered in the Supreme Court courtroom here. “As a matter of fact, if you took a poll of the court, you would probably find the justices much prefer civil cases over criminal--particularly death penalty--cases, which take their toll.”

Last week, Justice Stanley Mosk, the court’s senior member, said at a meeting of the State Bar of California that important cases involving civil rights, the environment and other civil issues may go unresolved unless there is drastic action to ease the court’s capital backlog.

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Lucas did not discuss Mosk’s comments--or Mosk’s proposal for an expanded high court, divided into separate panels to handle civil and criminal cases. But the chief justice did say he expects the court to agree to review more civil cases in the future.

During his expansive, 45-minute appearance, Lucas sought to emphasize the court’s independence from political pressures in deciding cases. Since the bitter 1986 campaign, there has been widespread concern that the justices--even subconsciously--might tailor their rulings to the whims of the electorate in order to stay in office.

Lucas said it would be inappropriate for a justice to temper a decision with political considerations, adding: “I can assure you that our court does not look at the election returns in its resolution of cases.”

The chief justice was asked whether, as several commentators suggested, the court’s unanimous rejection of Gov. George Deukmejian’s nomination of Rep. Daniel Lungren as state treasurer had served as a “litmus test” of the court’s independence. Five of the court’s seven members--including Lucas--were appointees of the Republican governor--and there had been speculation that the justices would be under heavy pressure to uphold Lungren’s nomination.

“Gosh, I haven’t taken a litmus test since last week,” the 61-year-old jurist replied, jokingly. Then he added: “We try to put on blinders . . . you don’t look at the names; you don’t look at the people; you leave (the decision) to the underlying law. (The Lungren decision) had nothing to do with any declaration of independence.”

Many of the questions to Lucas concerned the death penalty--in particular, the court’s accelerated pace of capital rulings and its abrupt end to the stream of reversals that marked the nine-year era under Bird.

Since Lucas became chief justice last year, the court has upheld 40 death sentences and reversed only 15. Under Bird, the court affirmed four death verdicts and overturned 64.

Lucas said he could offer no explanation for the turnabout--but he did refer indirectly to the new court’s standard for determining “harmless error” in capital trials. Under Lucas, the court has been substantially more reluctant to find that procedural errors could have affected the outcome of a case and thus required reversal of a death verdict.

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The chief justice said that the new court has applied both state and federal law “as we see it,” and pointed out that, to date, no capital ruling it has issued has been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We believe we have made substantially accurate law in the death penalty field,” he said.

He observed that, even with the shift toward more affirmances, the court still is reversing death verdicts about 25% of the time. By way of comparison, he cited the record of the Ohio Supreme Court, which, he said, had upheld 28 of 29 death verdicts it reviewed.

Lucas acknowledged that the grim and grisly nature of capital cases is “a depressing kind of thing” for the justices. “But the law requires us to take these cases. It’s our job and we, of course, are not going to shirk it.”

He brushed aside speculation that the heavy capital caseload would result in burnout on the court, forcing premature retirements among the justices. With a smile, Lucas alluded to a recent conversation with Mosk, who has served 24 years on the court.

The chief justice said he told Mosk: “It’s going to be difficult to break your record, but I fully intend to try.”

Discussing other subjects, Lucas said:

- He expects that the court’s recent move to decide cases within 90 days after oral argument will help streamline the decision-making process, while not reducing the quality of the court’s opinions. Under the new system, which is to begin Jan. 1, more discussion of a case will occur before argument than it has in the past, thus bringing issues into sharper focus earlier in the process, he said.

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“This has the potential--I can’t guarantee it--of expediting all cases,” he said. “First and foremost is the requirement of a quality opinion.”

- The justices, in issuing 55 capital rulings, have made substantial inroads on that portion of the backlog that includes cases that were fully briefed and ready for argument by attorneys before the court.

“I believe we have emerged as a strong, cohesive court that has had substantial success in reducing our backlog and has made diligent efforts to find better ways of conducting our business,” Lucas said in a prepared statement made before taking questions from reporters.

- Expressed admiration for the work that Bird performed as chief justice in administering the state judicial system. Before Lucas was elevated to chief justice, he worked at the court until 7:30 p.m., he said. Now, however, he routinely is in the office until 10.

“I had no idea how hard she had to work,” he said.


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