Newsletter: What is California’s top criminal law challenge?


She could have picked any number of issues to call California’s most pressing criminal law issue. After all, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye laid out so many concerns during her presentation to a public policy conference in Sacramento last week, from the future of cash bail to adequate funding for the courts and beyond.

But Cantil-Sakauye, who has presided over the state’s judicial branch since the summer of 2010, didn’t hesitate when she picked one topic above all else: implementation of Proposition 66, the voter mandate to speed up the death penalty process.



The challenge, as explained by the chief justice during an event sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California, is that Proposition 66 is predicated on something that’s not currently possible. The 2016 ballot measure requires an expedited judicial review of death penalty appeals, generally limiting the period for review to five years.

“So we have to make every best effort to speed up the death penalty so that, theoretically, more people could be on death row and ready for execution,” said Cantil-Sakauye.

But that’s where the process comes to a screeching halt.

“We have a governor who declared a moratorium on death penalty cases and then dismantled the death chamber,” she said, noting Gov. Gavin Newsom‘s decision earlier this year to block any effort to restart executions.

Nor do the challenges end there, given the ongoing federal court fight over the constitutionality of the lethal “cocktail” of drugs California administers to carry out executions. And back in the state courts, the chief justice noted that the extra workload of Proposition 66 came with no additional dollars for the courts to make it all happen.

“So we have a host of problems,” she said.


Cantil-Sakauye, who turned 60 in October, also offered some insight during the event into why she dropped her registration as a Republican last year. The turning point, she said, came during the confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanagh and the reaction by her two daughters.

“It was the atmosphere. It was their reaction,” she said. “And I just felt that I needed to take myself out of that equation.”


Not that Cantil-Sakauye thinks she’s the one who has changed. “I am a Deukmejian Republican,” she said in referring to the late Gov. George Deukmejian, for whom she served as a top aide. “Have been and in spirit, still am.”


Monday will be a big day for Pacific Gas & Electric, as the company will no doubt seek to minimize the damage inflicted by the scathing rebuke it received late Friday at the hands of California’s governor.

Newsom sent a five-page letter to William Johnson, president of PG&E Corp., offering a stunning rejection to the troubled utility’s plan to emerge from bankruptcy and, by extension, its recently announced $13.5-billion settlement with victims of recent California wildfires.

“In my judgment, the amended plan and the restructuring transactions do not result in a reorganized company positioned to provide safe, reliable, and affordable service to its customers,” the governor wrote.

And he didn’t quit there. “For too long, PG&E has been mismanaged, failed to make adequate investments in fire safety and fire prevention, and neglected critical infrastructure. PG&E has simply violated the public trust.”

The San Francisco-based company gambled on asking Newsom to weigh in on its plans, something it didn’t have to do. The financial markets may not be kind in reacting to the governor’s scathing criticism. PG&E has until Tuesday to revise its funding proposal.

Newsom’s attack on PG&E’s plans for the future came days after the release of a new poll of California voters, conducted for The Times by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, found most would impose major changes to the operations and control of PG&E.


-- As the House prepares to vote this week to impeach President Trump, leaders of the Senate began sparring Sunday over which witnesses each party might call in a trial.

-- Democratic Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, who has long opposed House Democrats’ impeachment effort, discussed switching parties in a Friday meeting with Trump.

-- Scuffles broke out Saturday during a Glendale town hall event on Armenian genocide that was attended by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who is at the center of the effort to impeach the president.

-- The U.S. Supreme Court said Friday it will consider three cases in which Trump argues the Constitution gives him sweeping immunity to shield his tax returns and business records from being released to House Democrats or prosecutors.

-- Billionaire Michael Bloomberg‘s spending on advertising for California’s March 3 election is unprecedented for a Democratic presidential primary.

-- All seven of the Democratic presidential candidates who have qualified for this week’s scheduled debate in Los Angeles threatened Friday to skip the event to express support for union workers involved in a contract dispute at Loyola Marymount University.

-- Columnist George Skelton says this week’s Democratic presidential debate, to be held in Los Angeles, should include at least a little bit of discussion about California.


Essential Politics is written by Sacramento bureau chief John Myers on Mondays and Washington bureau chief David Lauter on Fridays.

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