In a sharp and unexpected defeat for prosecutors, the state Supreme Court on Monday unanimously struck down a provision of Proposition 115 that dramatically limited the rights of criminal defendants under the state Constitution.
The court, in a separate vote of 6 to 1, upheld the other portions of the sweeping anti-crime initiative that were aimed at reducing delays in the criminal justice system. Proposition 115 passed last June.
But the justices held unconstitutional a key section of the measure that required state courts to follow less expansive U.S. Supreme Court rulings in applying 12 separate constitutional rights in criminal cases. The requirement made such a fundamental change that it amounted to a constitutional “revision"--rather than an amendment--and could not be enacted by initiative, the court said.
“In essence and practical effect, (that provision) would vest all judicial interpretive power, as to fundamental criminal defense rights, in the United States Supreme Court,” Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas wrote for the court. “From a qualitative standpoint, the effect of Proposition 115 is devasting.”
Monday’s decision was seen by attorneys as a strong and somewhat surprising affirmation from the conservative court of the doctrine of state constitutional independence. Under that doctrine--in which the California high court was once a pioneer--courts use their own constitutions to grant their citizens broader rights than required by the U.S. Supreme Court under the federal Constitution.
Backers had seen Proposition 115 as a means of limiting the impact of past state high court decisions--issued when the court was led by a liberal majority--that had given broader protections than those mandated by the federal court. For example, the federal court has allowed the death penalty for “especially heinous” murders, but the state court has ruled that such a provision was unconstitutionally vague.
Lawyers said also the ruling would likely encourage legal challenges to Proposition 140--the term-limit initiative passed last fall--or any other measure that was so sweeping in impact that it might be ruled a “revision” of the state Constitution. The ruling marked only the second time in history that the state high court has rejected an initiative as a constitutional revision.
Opponents of Proposition 115 were jubilant. “The court struck down the heart of the initiative,” said David B. Goodwin, a San Francisco attorney who represented foes of the measure in the case before the court. “What this court has said, from its most conservative to its most liberal member, is that it’s not going to be a rubber stamp for the federal courts,” said Goodwin. “In future cases, this court’s going to scrutinize any constitutional change very carefully.”
Goodwin also noted that the ruling removes what opponents had seen as a legal threat to the state-guaranteed right to abortion, should the state court be required to follow federal high court rulings limiting such rights. Backers repeatedly denied that such a threat exists, saying limitations imposed by the measure on the right to privacy were aimed only at criminal defendants.
Gerald F. Uelmen, law dean at Santa Clara University and one of three lawyers who brought the suit against Proposition 115, praised the justices for “putting some teeth back” in constitutional limits on the initiative process.
“It’s very gratifying that the change on the court (from liberal to conservative) has not disrupted a historical tradition . . . that has given independent vitality to the state Constitution,” said Uelmen. “This is wonderful. It’s as though we got the state Constitution back for Christmas.”
State Assistant Atty. Gen. Richard B. Iglehart, who defended the measure in court, expressed disappointment but pointed out that the bulk of the measure, with its vast changes in criminal procedures, survived the challenge and remains intact. “We now have some indication of what can be done and what can’t be done,” he said.
Like others in the case, Iglehart voiced some surprise that the ruling invalidating a pivotal part of an anti-crime measure had been issued by a conservative court that has heretofore ruled largely in favor of law enforcement. “It’s hard to answer why, except that the (invalidated provision) does attack the very power of the court . . . and that it doesn’t necessarily want to see that power taken away,” the prosecutor said.
Proposition 115 passed with a 57% vote in the June primary. It was sponsored by state and local prosecutors, victims’ rights groups and U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson as part of his successful gubernatorial campaign.
The initiative has remained in effect while opponents challenged its provisions. Another test case--to determine whether the initiative may be applied to cases pending when it was enacted--will be heard in January by the court.
In the provision that was struck down Monday, the measure required state courts to follow federal high court rulings in applying the rights of equal protection, due process, assistance of counsel, personal presence at trial, speedy trial, compulsory attendance of witnesses, confrontation of witnesses, protection against unreasonable searches, privacy and the rights against self-incrimination, double jeopardy and cruel and unusual punishment. These rights often have been interpreted by state courts to grant Californians greater protections than similar provisions in the federal Constitution.
The initiative also made extensive statutory and constitutional changes in court procedures--changes that remain intact after Monday’s ruling. Among other things, police are allowed to present hearsay testimony in preliminary hearings, saving victims from having to appear and testify at such proceedings; defendants indicted by grand juries are denied the right to preliminary hearings; judges take over from lawyers as the principal interrogators of prospective jurors; court-appointed attorneys and public defenders are required to be ready for trial within strict time limits, and defense attorneys are required to disclose their evidence to prosecutors before trial, just as prosecutors are required to turn over evidence to the defense.
The measure also broadened the scope of the state’s capital punishment law. The death penalty is permitted for the killing of witnesses to prevent them from testifying in a juvenile case and for accomplices in felony murders without a specific finding that they intended a killing to occur. Another provision allowed 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of first-degree murder to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Opponents charged in their suit that the measure was so wide-ranging it violated a constitutional requirement that initiatives be limited to a “single subject,” and secondly amounted to a revision of the Constitution, which may be enacted by the electorate only after approval by the Legislature or a constitutional convention.
The high court, in a 31-page opinion by Lucas, first rejected the claim that the measure violated the single-subject rule. The assorted elements of Proposition 115 form a “comprehensive criminal justice reform package,” Lucas said.
But the provision requiring state courts to follow federal decisions was invalid and could not be upheld, the court concluded. That provision would “substantially alter the substance and integrity” of the state Constitution and restrict judicial power in a way that would “severely limit” the document’s “independent force and effect,” the chief justice said.
To illustrate the point, Lucas said that under the initiative, it was theoretically possible that state courts would be required to follow a federal high court ruling, even if it were to approve “public torture or maiming” for minor misdemeanors.
Lucas’ opinion was joined by justices Allen E. Broussard, Edward A. Panelli, David N. Eagleson, Joyce L. Kennard and Armand Arabian. In a separate opinion, Justice Stanley Mosk agreed with the ruling striking down the judicial-power limitation, but said he believed the entire initiative should be thrown out as a violation of the “single-subject” rule.