The California Supreme Court will decide whether Proposition 21, last year's sweeping voter overhaul of the state justice system, is unconstitutional -- a decision that could affect the fate of thousands of youngsters. In an hour of arguments Wednesday, the justices looked at two questions: whether the measure dealt with too many unrelated issues -- a breach of the "single-subject" law -- and whether it violated the constitutional separation of powers by allowing prosecutors, instead of judges, to decide whether juveniles should be tried as adults.
Prosecutors are in the government's executive branch, not the judiciary. The case, which will be decided within 90 days, involves a group of eight San Diego-area youths facing adult charges of committing a hate crime for allegedly beating up Mexican farm workers at a migrant camp last summer. The San Diego County district attorney's office appealed the case to the state Supreme Court after a lower court ruled that Proposition 21 violated the separation of powers. The initiative, passed overwhelmingly by voters in March 2000, amended dozens of crime statutes dealing with gangs, the juvenile justice system and even adult sentencing. It is "a huge net that's been cast out over thousands and thousands of offenders," Jo Pastore, a public defender representing one youth, argued before the state Supreme Court. Voters were misled into believing the measure would simply toughen laws on juvenile crime when it actually was a "stealth amendment" to overhaul the three strikes law and contained new penalties for wiretapping and sexual abuse of a child, Pastore said. Deputy Attorney General Thomas F. McArdle argued that the single subject of the bill is "crime prevention" and noted the court has upheld other omnibus crime bills. He also said voters knew about the three-strikes changes and other provisions because they were contained in ballot materials. "Four-and-a-half million Californians approved Proposition 21 but eight defendants seek to set it aside," he said. Both sides said outside the courtroom they were hopeful of victory but couldn't guess the court's decision. Minors are those under 18. Those convicted in the juvenile court system can be held in a juvenile facility only until they are 25, even if they were convicted of heinous crimes. Minors convicted as adults get adult sentences and may be sent to an adult prison for life, but cannot be executed. Chief Justice Ronald M. George and others wondered whether Proposition 21 restricts a judge's discretion in sentencing because it allows a prosecutor to choose whether a defendant faces juvenile or adult penalties.
A judge's sentencing options are reduced every time a prosecutor decides what charges to file, McArdle answered. An attempted murder case, for example, doesn't permit a judge to sentence someone to death. But does the measure take away an "essential or intrinsic decision" from judges, asked Justice Joyce L. Kennard. "Where do we draw the line?" the justice asked. The case is Manduley v. San Diego County Superior Court, S095992