The California Supreme Court proposed a constitutional amendment to change the death penalty appeals process on Monday in an effort to ease the backlog in the state's death penalty system.
California has the largest number of inmates on Death Row in the nation. With 666 condemned inmates who must appeal through the Supreme Court, the average time between sentencing and execution is more than 17 years—twice the nation’s average.
Thirty people have been on death row for more than 25 years, 119 for more than 20 years and 408 for more than a decade.
Chief Justice Ronald George, who announced the proposal, said the court spends around 20 percent of its time on capital cases alone. The amendment would allow the Court, which is required to hear all death sentence appeals, to send some of the cases to one of six appeals court in the state.
“For many, many years, people have lamented the very slow process of these capital cases," George told the San Francisco Chronicle. "And rather than just speak about the delay and how the system is dysfunctional, I thought this would be a good idea to consider as a way to improve the system."
If the amendment were approved, the court would refer 30 cases a year at most to the appellate courts, according to George.
The chief justice said death penalty rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and the 400 death penalty cases decided by the State Supreme Court would provide considerable guidance to the state appeals court, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The state high court, however, would retain the right of final review, George noted.
George said he is looking for a legislator who will sponsor the measure, which he hopes will secure the two-thirds vote needed from lawmakers to appear on the November 2008 ballot. A majority of state voters would also need to approve the amendment.
Professor Evan Lee at UC Hastings College of the Law welcomed the proposal and said that the court should be spending more answering “highly controversial questions of law or novel questions of law.”
Many death penalty cases "are what we call fact-bound," Lee told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Those are the kinds of cases that for the Supreme Court are sort of a waste of time.”
California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a defense lawyers' association, disagreed that the constitutional amendments would cure “court congestion” in the state. The major problem instead is the lack of qualified attorneys, a matter not addressed in the proposal, argued the group, according to the Associated Press.
Stefanie Faucher, a spokeswoman for Death Penalty Focus, a San Francisco-based organization that opposes capital punishment, said the proposal has her “very concerned.”
"Further increasing of the number of individuals reviewing these cases ... could cause increased disparities in the already unfair administration of the death penalty,” she said.