Here’s how difficult it is to put something in the U.S. Constitution: You need the approval of two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states. This is why the Constitution only has 27 amendments, and nearly half of those came with the original Constitution.
And here’s how easy it is to put something in the California Constitution: You only need the “yes” votes of a majority of whoever shows up to vote on election day. Whether it’s 5,000 or 5 million voters, it takes only 50% plus one of them to change the state Constitution. No wonder we have nearly 500 state constitutional amendments. And getting something removed from the California Constitution? Let’s just say that, like the Iraq war and a sub-prime mortgage, it’s a whole lot easier to get into than out of.
That’s why you should be careful Nov. 4 -- you’ll be deciding on a quagmire of constitutional-amendment propositions, budgeting by ballot box and hissy fits and ego trips masquerading as democracy.
As Frank Zappa once observed, in California, anyone “can crawl out from under a rock and invent a lawsuit.” Or a law. With a few million dollars and a catchy title, you can get the signatures to put several kinds of stupid on the state ballot. Among this crop of losers: three criminal-justice initiatives.
Proposition 9, “Marsy’s Law,” takes some of the rules from the 1982 Victims’ Bill of Rights and enshrines them as constitutional amendments. Marsy was murdered 25 years ago. She was the sister of Orange County high-tech billionaire Henry T. Nicholas III (now under indictment on conspiracy, fraud and drug charges). He’s bankrolling 9 and Proposition 6, which I’ll get to presently.
Proposition 9 would give legal standing to victims or family members in criminal cases. L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley -- hardly unsympathetic to victims -- says the new rules could run afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s protections for the accused. Our system acts in the name of the people, not the victim; in the interests of justice, not revenge.
Proposition 9, Cooley told me, would sweep aside “decades of legislative scrutiny and judicial review.” It plays to voters’ feelings, selling itself with a female victim’s name, “like a cherry on the ice cream.”
It also will be bogglingly expensive, not least because of the cost of keeping survivors in the justice-system loop. On top of that, Proposition 9 has a poison pill: If you get voters’ remorse, you can’t change a syllable of it without a three-quarters vote of the Legislature. The same Legislature that can hardly agree on which way is north, as the cynical drafters of the measure well know.
Proposition 6, which also contains a poison pill, is equally dimwitted. It’s the baby of state Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster), who hates big gub’mint budgets unless they’re his idea. The “Safe Neighborhoods Act” -- another enticing, hollow title -- would stick us with at least a $600-million tab every year, like clockwork, for what are supposed to be anti-gang measures, without raising the money to pay for it. This is the same autopilot budgeting that’s put us deep in red ink. (Isn’t doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result the jokester’s definition of insanity?)
It would mess with successful local juvenile and crime programs, locking up more and more people at the very moment the federal government is demanding billions from California taxpayers to fix a prison system that’s already a disaster of overcrowding.
And then there’s Proposition 5. Alas, this is one of those paving stones to hell you hear about.
In trying to treat drug addiction as an illness rather than a crime, it could make a hash out of the criminal courts and print get-out-of-jail-free cards for almost anyone who commits a nonviolent crime and says those devil drugs made him do it.
From Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown on down, California prosecutors are apoplectic about 5. Cooley says that “the fine print makes it essentially the biggest public safety threat I’ve ever seen.” Some 50,000 of the 70,000 felonies his office handles every year could qualify as drug-related, he believes, and because of Proposition 5, the offenders could wind up facing no criminal consequences.
The political mantra of the moment is that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. But these props aren’t even good. Californians have to take their hands off the steering wheel of micro-governing and demand that the Sacramento squabblers fighting in the back seat do what we elected them to do, and drive.