Death Chamber

A federal appeals court heard arguments Monday in Pasadena on the constitutionality of California’s death penalty. Above, the San Quentin execution chamber.

By Maura Dolan
August 31, 2015

California’s death penalty system, plagued by delays and inadequate funding, may survive an appeals court’s scrutiny because of legal rules that limit federal oversight, a U.S. court panel indicated Monday.

During a hearing before a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel, three judges focused on procedural land mines that could imperil last year’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney declaring California’s system of capital punishment unconstitutional. None of the 9th Circuit judges revealed any leanings, but all focused on legal rules that might require them to overturn Carney’s decision.

Judge Paul J. Watford, an Obama appointee, said he had “major problems” with the fact that Carney ruled on an issue not yet addressed by the California Supreme Court.

Carney determined that decades-long delays and dysfunction render California’s death penalty arbitrary and unconstitutional. Legal rules require death row inmates to litigate or “exhaust” all their claims in state court, except in rare cases, before federal judges may review them.

Michael Laurence, representing death row inmate Ernest Jones, said the rules don’t apply when the state has caused the problem and has no remedy to fix it. If the 9th Circuit sends the case back to the California Supreme Court, four more years will pass before a decision, and even then, it will probably be a terse rejection sent on a postcard, Laurence said.

“If the California Supreme Court truly wanted to resolve this question in an expeditious manner, it would have done so a year ago,” Laurence said.

Watford seemed dubious. Exceptions to the so-called “exhaustion” rule generally have been limited to cases that have been pending before state courts for many years without a resolution, he said.

“Here, your client hasn’t even tried yet,” Watford said.

Judge Susan P. Graber, a Clinton appointee, suggested the state high court might already have rejected the constitutional argument, albeit in a more narrow context. Federal courts are supposed to defer to decisions by state judges in criminal cases.

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