By Jeff Adachi
Setting policy is a lot like making sausage: We want to see the cleanly packaged result rather than the gory process.
But last week, Gov. Jerry Brown did something so undemocratic, we can’t look away. He slipped a last-minute bill into the state budget that has been rejected numerous times.
Senate Bill 843, a budget trailer bill to be voted on Thursday, would cut the number of peremptory challenges in misdemeanor trials from 10 to six. Peremptory challenges allow attorneys to dismiss jurors without giving a reason. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys oppose the bill, because it undermines our ability to weed out jurors we suspect, but cannot prove, are biased.
Here are five reasons why Californians should care:
1. Adding the measure as a last-minute budget item circumvents the will of the people and their elected representatives. A similar bill failed to pass in 2014 and again in 2015. In both cases, the author pulled the proposed legislation due to lack of support.
2. The governor’s proposal threatens the Sixth Amendment right to an unbiased jury. This will disproportionately hurt African American and Latino defendants, who are already overrepresented in our prisons and jails. When the nation is focused on addressing racism in our criminal justice system, this proposal is a step backward. To try to take away this right without discussion in a policy committee is a slap in the face.
3. Some California judges are behind the push to cut peremptory challenges, saying it will save time and money. But not all judges agree. “There is no study that shows such a reduction will save time or money,” says Judge Runston Maino of San Diego County. “Should not judges make decisions on facts and not on unfounded opinions?”
Meanwhile, Brown is ignoring the voices of prosecutors, who speak for crime victims, and public defenders, who stand up for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised.
4. A fundamental constitutional protection is at stake, so this is no time for snap decisions. Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, says he doesn’t know whether the proposal is good or bad for his constituents, because he hasn’t had time to study the issue. If the bill passes Thursday, he never will.
5. The right to an unbiased jury is the heart of our justice system, not the fat to be trimmed. Passing the bill in this manner allows the governor to prioritize the wishes of a few judges over the rights of millions of Californians.
Jeff Adachi is the public defender in San Francisco.