My View: Local Disappointments Aside, Governor Brown Diversified the Judicial Bench

In the waning days of Governor Jerry Brown’s tenure as Governor, he disappointed some local residents with his appointments to the Yolo County Bench that lacked diversity.  However, on the whole he has completely remade the judicial bench in California. 

Bear in mind, that from the time Governor Brown left office the first time at the end of the 1982, until he took office for the second time in 2011 – a 28 period of time, Democrats only occupied the Governorship for five of those years with Gray Davis being removed via a recall after just a year into his second term.

However, Governor Brown during his eight years, completely remade the California Supreme Court, with Joshua Groban being his fourth appointment.  Interestingly enough, it was Joshua Groban’s job to screen judges until he was appointed to Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, who retired in August 2017.

That seat was left open for over a year with growing speculation as to who the Governor was planning to put in that seat causing the long delay.  That was the longest the longest vacancy in the court history and apparently filled by a succession of appeals court justices, chosen in alphabetical order to hear the court’s monthly calendar of arguments.

In total, Governor Brown chose 644 judges in his eight years.  A remarkable 44 percent of those were women and nearly 40 percent “identified themselves as non-white.”  For good measure, nearly six percent were from the LGBT community.

The Supreme Court now has a majority of Democratic appointees on it for the first time since the fateful 1986 election when the voters removed Chief Justice Rose Bird along with Justices Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso.  The voters ire that year fueled by votes by the three to overturn death sentences.

One of the more consequential things Governor Brown did at the end of his tenure – aside from setting new records for pardons and commutations – was order new DNA tests in the 35 year old case that has drawn national attention – Kevin Cooper.

Mr. Cooper, his attorneys and supporters, believe that the testing will show he was framed in the four murders from 1983.  Gaining less attention was the fact that Governor Brown appointed a retired judge to oversee the case.

According to media accounts, prosecutors continue to claim that Mr. Cooper’s innocence has been disproven multiple times including by prior DNA testing, but Mr. Cooper and his attorney believe that the evidence against him was planted.

“I take no position as to Mr. Cooper’s guilt or innocence at this time, but colorable factual questions have been raised about whether advances in DNA technology warrant limited retesting of certain physical evidence in this case,” Brown wrote in his executive order.

They would look to see if another suspect’s DNA or the DNA of any other identifiable people is on the items.  If the tests reveal no new DNA or DNA that cannot be traced to a person, “this matter should be closed,” Brown wrote.

One thing that Governor Brown did not do was grant clemency to the more than 740 people on death row in California.

In December, six former governors wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling on Governor Brown to grant clemency to death row prisoners – all 740 that are currently sitting on death row.

The six were: Richard Celeste, John Kitzhaber, Martin O’Malley, Bill Richardson, Pat Quinn and Toney Anaya.

They write: “Among a governor’s many powers, none is more significant than signing a death warrant. It’s a terrible responsibility, hard even to imagine until you’re asked to carry it out, as we were.

“But we became convinced that it wasn’t something a civilized society should ask of its leaders. That’s why we halted executions in our states, and we call on Gov. Jerry Brown of California to do the same.”

In late November, the LA Times Editorial Board argued “the death penalty is impracticable and unusable. But it’s also unfair and immoral.”  Further, they believe there is “credible evidence that innocent people have been executed, often as a result of convictions gained through prosecutorial misconduct or perjury.”

They write: “Brown should make a forceful statement that reflects what he has said is in his heart: The death penalty is wrong. Brown, who has generally been generous with commutations, can take further steps as well; he could, for instance, begin the process of commuting the death sentences of people whose crimes were committed when they were young, before their brains, their judgment and their impulse control were fully developed.”

Finally on a local note of disappointment, the Governor did not commute the sentence of Ajay Dev, a former Davis resident sentenced to 378 years for the rape of an adopted daughter.  Many – including the Vanguard – believe that Mr. Dev was wrongly convicted and many others believe the sentence was disproportionate to the non-capital nature of the crime.

Mr. Dev was convicted in 2009 and in August will mark the 10th anniversary of his sentencing.  Currently attorneys for Mr. Dev are working to have his habeas corpus hearing in the coming months.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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