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California Supreme Court recommends that Gov. Jerry Brown pardon former state senator

California Supreme Court recommends that Gov. Jerry Brown pardon former state senator
Former state senator Roderick Wright on the stand in his own defense during his trial in July 2014. Gov. Jerry Brown is considering his application for a pardon. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

The state Supreme Court on Tuesday recommended that Gov. Jerry Brown pardon former state Sen. Roderick Wright for a 2014 conviction on felony charges that involved lying about living in his legislative district.

The action comes as the nonpartisan First Amendment Coalition filed a motion Tuesday asking the court to unseal records Brown filed on the clemency petition, saying there has been a troubling pattern of secrecy that has cloaked a record number of clemency actions during his administration.

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“This long-standing, flawed practice of immediately sealing records of this kind amounts to a sort of ‘secret docket’ at the state's highest court,” said David Snyder, the coalition’s executive director. “We believe the state and federal constitution prohibit this practice — and there is an intense public interest in seeing these records, in particular as they pertain to an elected official convicted of serious felonies.”

The motion also asks that all documents in other pending and future clemency cases be made public.

The high court’s recommendation of a pardon on Tuesday follows signals from Brown’s office that he is likely to grant clemency in the case before he leaves office in January.

“As the Board of Parole Hearings has found, Sen. Wright’s application presents a favorable case for a pardon,” Peter A. Krause, the governor’s legal affairs secretary, said in a letter to the court last month.

The court did not provide the reasoning for its recommendation, which it made based on the record that includes a recommendation by the parole board in September.

Wright, 66, said he believed he complied with state law.

“I’m certainly sorry for the challenges I brought forth in terms of questions about my house, and I take full responsibility,” Wright said in a recent interview. “I thought I was correct, but the jury didn’t agree with me.”

Wright, a Democrat, resigned from the Senate and was barred for life from holding public office as a result of the conviction on eight felony charges that included perjury and voting fraud. He was sentenced to three months in jail but served less than a day because of overcrowding.

During the criminal trial, prosecutors said Wright made it appear that he lived in a rental complex he owns in Inglewood to run for the Senate seat in 2008, but that his true residence was a house in Baldwin Hills, outside the district.

Wright told a Los Angeles County jury that he believed he had taken the necessary steps to establish the Inglewood property as his domicile and had not intended to deceive voters when he arranged to rent a bedroom in the unit.

Wright, who has been teaching at UC Davis, said the law on residency was ambiguous.

“The problem is there is nothing in the election code that says how many days you have to sleep in your domicile,” Wright said. “People commonly say you have to live in your district, but that is not in the elections code.”

Brown’s office gave the court a review of the pardon request and letters from people who support a pardon, but the governor’s staff refused to make those documents public.

Wright’s application also requests a pardon for a 1972 conviction, when Wright was 19, for taking a motor vehicle without the owner's consent. He served three years’ probation for the older conviction.

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“The crimes for which Sen. Wright was convicted — vehicle theft, perjury, false declaration of candidacy, and fraudulent voting — were nonviolent in nature,” Krause wrote to the court. “Moreover, Sen. Wright has devoted much of his life to public service, including serving six years in the California State Senate and six years in the California Assembly. Since his conviction, Sen. Wright has been employed as a consultant on government affairs and is an adjunct professor.”

Krause noted that after Wright’s conviction, the Legislature enacted a new law that clarifies the requirements regarding where legislators live, writing that the Board of Parole Hearings found that “establishing a domicile in the manner Mr. Wright did during the period of 2007 to 2009 would be permissible under the bill.”

The motion by the First Amendment Coalition seeks public release of documents deemed confidential by the court and governor’s office including a “Pardon Investigation Report,” Wright’s criminal record and letters of support for the pardon.

While releasing a letter from the governor’s office asking for a review, the court and governor’s office rejected a request by The Times for copies of other documents in the case involving Wright, who represented part of Los Angeles County. The coalition’s requests for documents were also turned down.

“These sort of documents include both sensitive and deliberative information,” said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the governor.

The court’s written operating practices say “the papers and documents transmitted to the court by the governor with the application often contain material that the governor may have the right to withhold from the public.”

The policy cites a section of state law that exempts from public disclosure “personnel, medical, or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Also cited is an exemption for investigations conducted by law enforcement, and for correspondence of the governor or his office, “or in the custody of or maintained by” the governor’s legal affairs secretary.

“Accordingly, the court treats these files as confidential and does not make them available to the public,” the policy says.

The motion notes that Brown has issued a record number of pardons and clemency requests — more than 1,000 — during his time in office. By comparison, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued fewer than 20 pardons, and none were granted by former Gov. Gray Davis, the filing said.

The filing also says that the public has a right to inspect clemency materials under the California Rules of Court, the common law, and the federal and state constitutions.

“The public also has an independent interest in overseeing the conduct of the Governor and any public officials to which clemency is granted, in order to root out public corruption,” it says.

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