Death Penalty Politics

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s anti-death penalty position will not only intensify the politics of district attorney campaigns but may one-day reach as high as California Supreme Court retention elections.

Newsom is leaning toward prohibiting new death sentences in local murder cases. Add death penalty prohibition to issues left-leaning groups are highlighting in efforts to get progressive candidates elected district attorney in hopes the justice system can be changed under a different kind of prosecutor.

Recall during the last election cycle, liberal groups funded by billionaire George Soros and others, along with social justice groups, backed candidates who called for a new bail system, tougher scrutiny on police conduct and prison reforms. In California, the attempts mostly failed in getting the favored district attorney candidate elected.

Yet, the campaign to elect district attorneys with an anti-death penalty point of view found success in the county that includes Philadelphia where Democrat and civil rights lawyer Lawrence Krasner made news winning the D.A.s office on a platform that spurned the death penalty.

With Newsom nudging the anti-death penalty issue onto the national stage, the actual battle over seeking a death penalty verdict will now likely be contested in numerous district attorney races throughout California, as those who campaigned for a more liberal prosecutor are sure to try again.

But death penalty politics will not solely be the province of the D.A. races.

Depending how legislators vote on a proposed constitutional amendment in California to abolish the death penalty the issue is sure to be debated when legislators are up for re-election.

The new head of the California Republican Party, Jessica Patterson, specifically cited the death penalty in an interview with Politico California Playbook https://www.politico.com/newsletters/californiaplaybook as an issue the GOP can use to energize voters.

The Nooner’s Scott Lay put out an extensive analysis http://www.aroundthecapitol.com/nooner/2019-03-15.html that included Democratic-held districts that overwhelmingly supported the death penalty in recent ballot measure votes. The death penalty could become a major issue in those districts.

And a death penalty prohibition could throw a light on the California Supreme Court if Newsom accompanies his call for prohibition with commutation of all prisoners on death row. To this moment, he has only set a reprieve for those prisoners. A future governor can rescind the reprieve. For Newsom to guarantee the death row prisoners would not suffer the ultimate penalty, he would have to commute their sentences.

However, if a prisoner has committed two separate felonies any commutation requires concurrence from the Supreme Court. About half the prisoners on death row fall into this category.

Depending on how the court responds, should the circumstance of concurrence on commutations arise, the members of the court could face the death penalty issue when they are up for a retention vote, which occurs every 12 years.

Anyone familiar with California political history knows that three justices were removed from the Supreme Court in 1986. The central issue used against their retention to the bench was lack of support for the death penalty.

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