California’s Supreme Court appears closely divided over the constitutionality of a ballot measure passed in November to speed up executions, the Los Angeles Times reports. Proposition 66, backed by prosecutors, would require courts to review death penalty appeals rapidly, force more criminal defense lawyers to represent death row inmates and remove public review requirements for the state’s lethal injection procedures. An opponent of the death penalty sued to block the measure after the election, arguing it usurped the power of the judicial branch to run the courts. During arguments yesterday. several justices said it was clear that the California Supreme Court could not meet the measure’s five-year deadlines for resolving death penalty appeals without sacrificing attention to other kinds of cases.
When told by the measure’s advocates that the deadlines were mere targets, justices said the wording of the measure suggested otherwise. “So it is a mandatory deadline that is toothless?” asked Justice Leondra Kruger. Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, a moderate Republican appointee, could be the swing vote on the seven-justice court. The court has a backlog of more than 300 death penalty appeals ready to be heard and decided. Legal analysts have said the deadlines would force the court to decide death penalty cases almost exclusively for the next several years if the court upholds them. Jose Zelidon-Zepeda, defending the measure for the state attorney general, said the time limits were binding but there was no consequence for failing to meet them. “The initiative tries to speed up the process,” he said.