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California and the West

Senate Chief Blocks Davis Selection

Capitol: Fellow Democrat Burton refuses to set reappointment hearing for chief of Board of Prison Terms. Burton says the board violates human rights.


SACRAMENTO — Dealing a rare setback to a governor used to getting his way, a powerful state senator is blocking Gray Davis' attempt to reappoint the controversial chairman of the state Board of Prison Terms.

Democrat John Burton of San Francisco, the Senate's president pro tem, says he won't "validate the leadership" of James W. Nielsen by clearing him for a new four-year term as head of the state parole board.

As chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Burton has the power to convene confirmation hearings for the governor's appointees to the parole board and other state panels and commissions. Nielsen's current term expires next week, and on Thursday Burton said no hearing will be held for him.

A spokesman for Davis said the governor wants Nielsen, a Republican, reappointed because he has "confidence in his abilities."

"The governor believes he's the man for the job," said spokesman Michael Bustamante. "He's entitled to have a hearing set on his confirmation."

Burton disagrees. Of particular concern to him is a December ruling by a federal judge, who found that the parole board routinely violates the basic rights of disabled convicts at their parole hearings, thus denying them fair treatment.

"Some prisoners who use wheelchairs have had to crawl up stairs to get to their hearings," U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken of Oakland wrote as part of an order requiring the board to make sweeping changes. "Hearing-impaired prisoners who normally express themselves by using sign language had their hands shackled at their hearings."

Burton calls such conduct "outrageous" and believes responsibility for much of it "should be laid at the chairman's feet. It gives one pause as to whether you want to give that person another four years."

The senator added that he was appalled that the Davis administration has appealed the judge's order and asked for a stay of her injunction requiring the parole board to remedy all discrimination.

"They fought that lawsuit all the way," Burton said. And even though the judge called the evidence brought by the plaintiffs "overwhelming" and "uncontradicted," they "still won't admit what they did was wrong."

Donald Specter, a lawyer who brought the lawsuit on behalf of several thousand disabled inmates and parolees, is equally perturbed by the appeal.

"Whatever your position on criminal justice, this is a basic human rights issue," said Specter, director of the Prison Law Office.

The standoff between a Democratic governor and a leader of a Democratic Senate is highly unusual. Past Senate leaders have thwarted gubernatorial appointments, but they have typically been partisan squabbles between members of opposing parties.

Burton, however, has become increasingly irritated with Davis since the governor's remark last July that the Legislature's job is "to implement my vision."

Along with civil libertarians, the veteran senator also is unhappy with the governor's blanket denial of parole to convicted murderers who have served their minimum time and been deemed suitable for release by prison authorities.

During his first year in office, the Board of Prison Terms--which is appointed by the governor--forwarded 16 grants of parole to Davis for review. The governor blocked all of them.

"I believe in redemption," Burton said. "Obviously, the governor doesn't."

Nielsen, 55, declined to comment. Appointed by former Gov. Pete Wilson, he has served as chairman of the nine-member board since 1991. Before that he was a state senator, serving as Republican leader from 1983 to 1987 and earning a reputation as an advocate for agribusiness and crime victims' rights. As chairman of the parole board, he earns $95,520 a year.

Civil libertarians and advocates for inmate rights have been increasingly critical of the parole board and Davis, who has said that all murderers--even those whose sentences carry the possibility of parole--will remain locked up forever regardless of their progress behind bars.

Rowan Klein, legislative director of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said the group opposes Nielsen's confirmation because the chairman appears to agree with Davis that "all murderers should be paroled in a pine box."

"Jim Nielsen is courteous and a gentleman, but we need a change in direction . . . and a chairman who will follow the law," Klein said.

At a special Senate hearing last April, a string of witnesses lambasted Nielsen and the board. Among the charges were that parole board members routinely ignored the findings of prison psychiatrists who recommended the release of certain inmates they deemed no longer dangerous.

Last May, Davis extended Nielsen's chairmanship, but he was never officially confirmed--a step that would have to be taken by Tuesday for him to qualify for a new term. Legislative sources said that during the past month, Nielsen has been calling other senators soliciting support.


Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this report.

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