Federal Judge Uses One Lawsuit to Declare Two California Parole Laws Unconstitutional

Monday, March 03, 2014
Judge Lawrence K. Karlton

U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton does not like California’s so-called “Victims’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008: Marsy’s Law.”

He issued an injunction against the tough parole law after it was passed as Proposition 9 in 2008. But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his ruling, saying it wasn’t enough that state law violated a previous federal injunction; it had to violate the U.S. Constitution.

Last Friday, he used a broader brush and said the law and Proposition 89, passed in 1988, both violated the U.S. Constitution by effectively lengthening the potential sentences for convicted criminals after they had already been sentenced.

Marsy’s Law reduced the number of parole hearings a prisoner was entitled to, required that a victim’s safety be considered and increased the number of people that could testify on behalf of victims. Other parts of the law further restricted the chances for parole. Prop. 89 gave the governor authority to change or reverse any decision by the parole authority.

The two laws were challenged by separate class-action suits, which Karlton addressed in the case before him, Gilman v. Brown. The judge said Prop. 9 “creates a significant risk” that a prisoner’s sentence will be longer than the law mandated when the case was decided. Although the initiative provides a mechanism for a parole board to actually advance a hearing, Karlton found that promise “illusory” because of hurdles the board erects, according to Sacramento Bee reporter Denny Walsh, who read the 54-page opinion.

The judge also found that governors misused Proposition 89 by wielding it as a weapon to arbitrarily delay paroles rather than employ it to review prisoner applications on their merit. “The governors have carried out the people’s will by putting their fingers on the scale and reversing 70 percent of parole grants for these class members,” he wrote.

Karlton announced last week that he plans to retire in August.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Two State Laws Ruled Unconstitutional (by Denny Walsh, Sacramento Bee)

Appeals Court Backs Prop. 9 Parole Revocation Rule (by Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times)

Valdivia v. Schwarzenegger (U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals)

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