Despite legal challenges to the death penalty, California’s chief justice is pressing ahead with plans to alter how courts will vet the largest number of capital cases in the U.S., says the Sacramento Bee. Citing decades-long appeals and a backlog that threatens to overwhelm the high court, Chief Justice Ronald George told state commissioners yesterday that now is the time to relinquish the state Supreme Court’s exclusive review of death penalty cases and open the process to the lower courts. He hopes to have the proposal on the 2008 general ballot or to find a legislator to sponsor the measure. “The existing system for handing capital appeals in California is dysfunctional and needs reform,” the chief justice told a state commission.
Skeptics suggested that spreading out capital cases to the appellate courts could add another layer to an already notoriously slow appeals process. A law professor at the hearing likened George’s proposal to just “rearranging furniture.” With a surge in the death row population over the years – more than 660 inmates are awaiting execution – George said death penalty reviews alone consume about 20 percent to 25 percent of the high court’s caseload, up from about 5 percent to 10 percent about two decades ago.