One of the most distressing features of California's current political landscape is the way in which ambitious office seekers have appropriated the people's indispensable guarantor of direct democracy, the initiative, and turned it into a private tool of campaign technology. By doing so, these politicians hope to portray themselves as champions of popular issues and to circumvent the legal limits on campaign spending.
Thus, nearly every candidate for statewide office in both parties now is sponsoring or endorsing one or more initiatives. For example, Sen. Pete Wilson, the probable Republican nominee for governor, has linked his electoral fortunes to a proposed ballot proposition called The Crime Victims' Justice Reform Act, which would make sweeping changes in California's criminal justice system. Other versions of this measure, which is a compendium of ill-advised proposals prudently rejected by the Legislature over the past decade, have been circulated twice since 1984, and then withdrawn for lack of popular support. This year, Wilson--mindful of the public's anxiety over crime--has given the proposal's backers several hundred thousand dollars they could not raise from the people on their own. That money currently is being used to fund a campaign to gather enough signatures to finally put the measure on the ballot.
We believe, however, that those Californians who are properly informed of this initiative's implications will refuse to sign it. And, if by some misfortune it does make its way onto the ballot, it should be rejected.
Despite the title concocted by its authors, this dangerous and destructive proposal will do nothing for the victims of crime. It will, on the other hand, recklessly abolish Californians' recourse to their own state's constitution as a protector of their rights. Among the safeguards thus abrogated will be the right of women and their physicians to invoke the California Constitution's separately enumerated right to privacy as a shield against anyfuture attempt to recriminalize abortion in this state. If passed, this measure also would create a dual system of justice in which judges would be forced to accord individuals wealthy enough to retain lawyers one set of rights, while holding people of modest means, forced to rely on appointed counsel, to another, more restrictive standard.
Meanwhile, if the initiative's so-called speedy trial provisions actually were implemented, Californians would be forced to choose between shutting down their system of civil courts so that criminal cases could be heard at a greater rate or spending tens of millions of dollars to build new courts and staff them with hundreds more judges, public defenders and appointed private lawyers. In fact, truth in advertising ought to compel this measure's authors to call it The Lawyers' Full Employment Act.
The initiative's proponents argue that all this must be done to bring California's criminal justice system into conformity with that of the federal government. This, they claim, will ensure swifter and surer punishment of criminals. However, as legal scholar Gerald F. Uelmen, dean of the Santa Clara University School of Law, has pointed out, this state already does a better job of resolving criminal cases than does the federal system: "California currently disposes of 10 times as many felony cases per year as the federal courts, with only 1 1/2 times as many judges," says Uelmen. "In federal courts, only 75% of felony cases are disposed of by a guilty plea. In California, the rate is 95%."
If this ballot proposition were to become law, the people of California would be needlessly deprived of this advantage. They would not only suffer the diminution of their rights as citizens of this state, but also be forced to finance it out of an already overtaxed public treasury. That is a very steep price to pay simply to further the ambitions of a few politicians and prosecutors.