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Cal. Capital Appeal Proposal

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The California Supreme Court has issued this press release with a proposal to modify the system of appealing all capital cases directly to the Supreme Court. In noncapital felony cases, the appeal lies to the intermediate appellate court, the Court of Appeal, and review in the Supreme Court is discretionary. For capital cases, the California Constitution presently vests the appeal exclusively in the Supreme Court. That court has a huge backlog.

There is much to be said for moving most of the load to the Courts of Appeal. There are simply more of them, and at least in theory more hands should make quicker work. Although as Latzer and Cauthen have pointed out, a two-stage process is generally slower than one stage, that is not necessarily true where the one stage is overloaded to the point of breakdown.

However, we know from experience that there are many judges who approach capital cases looking for an excuse to reverse. We saw it in the California Supreme Court through 1986. We see it in the Ninth Circuit today. We would doubtless see it in the California Courts of Appeal if they had jurisdiction. Allowing a simple majority of a three-judge panel to overturn a death sentence with only discretionary review of that decision would mean that affirmance or reversal depends as much on what panel is drawn as it does on the merits of the case.

This proposal addresses that issue by requiring the California Supreme Court to review the decisions and allowing summary affirmance only if the court agrees that the Court of Appeal decision is correct. In theory, at least, this is different from the discretion to review the case or not that the California Supreme Court has in noncapital cases and the United States Supreme Court has in almost all cases.

In practice, though, is there really a difference between summary affirmance and denial of certiorari or review? By the time the U.S. Supreme Court's mandatory appeal docket was shrunk to its present size, there was not a lot of difference.

This is an idea worth considering, along with other possibilities. The change would require a constitutional amendment, though, and getting 2/3 of California's present Legislature to approve anything positive is a longshot. It might require an initiative.

1 Comment

Anyone else notice that the proposal allows the Cal Supremes to transfer a case to any District --- no matter where the crime occurred --- when caseloads are out of balance?

If my memory of the courts' workloads is correct, this means a whole lot of Riverside and Orange County death judgments would get heard by San Francisco Courts of Appeal, which strikes me as an awful way to give the least burdened appellate courts a more equal share of the workload.

I also don't like the idea of judges publicly lobbying to modify their jurisdiction. Just how are, um, practitioners supposed to oppose this rule when they repeatedly appear in front of the court that unanimously thinks this is a good idea?

Many of the reasons for the delays can be laid squarely at the court's feet. If they really want to reduce caseloads, they could try be enforcing the rules of court, like the ones regarding page limits. And it shouldn't take more than a year for defense counsel to file a reply brief on direct appeal.

Here's an idea I'd much prefer to see: Require defense counsel who receive public money for working on homicide cases on appeal to take a capital case. Just one would be a nice start.

Signed,
Not My Real Name.

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