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California and the West

Davis Concedes Defeat Over Parole Board Choice

Capitol: Democratic lawmaker's refusal to hold hearing dooms nomination of GOP hard-liner.

March 14, 2000|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis conceded defeat Monday in his fight with the Democratic leader of the state Senate to appoint a Republican hard-liner to the state parole board, but promised he will nominate "someone equally qualified."

The Democratic governor issued the declaration shortly after Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) reaffirmed his earlier refusal to hold a confirmation hearing for James W. Nielsen before the appointee's current term expires today.

Without confirmation, Nielsen, a former Republican leader of the Senate who is the hard-line chairman of the Board of Prison Terms, must step down from the $95,520-a-year post.

Burton said he opposed Nielsen because a federal judge had found that he and the board routinely abused the rights of disabled prisoners in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Burton said he and other Democrats had a big "problem" in voting to confirm Nielsen, although Nielsen's 10-month term will end today.

A spokeswoman for Davis said the governor wanted Nielsen confirmed for the final day of his current term, so that he could be reappointed to a longer term later.

But to receive a new appointment from Davis, Nielsen would have had to receive Senate confirmation of his current term. Failure to win confirmation has the effect of prohibiting Davis from appointing Nielsen to a new term in the future.

"Victims' rights groups and law enforcement fully support Sen. Nielsen's confirmation," Davis said in a statement. "I want to assure them that I will nominate someone equally qualified to discharge the obligations of this important office."

Burton countered that Davis misstated the issues. "The issue wasn't whether or not Nielsen was supported by law enforcement and victims' rights groups. . . . The issue was whether or not he treated people according to the law as set down by the [Americans With Disabilities Act] which a federal court found in the strongest terms that Mr. Nielsen did not do."

Among other things, Burton noted, the court found that crippled prisoners were required to crawl up stairs to attend parole hearings, deaf inmates could not communicate with the board in sign language because their arms were shackled, and blind convicts were given printed documents to read.

Nielsen was philosophical about the loss of his job, but said he was proud of the part the board's strict policies had played in reducing the crime rate in California. "We have taken strong stands to protect the public's right to safety," he said in an interview. He said he was uncertain whether he will seek employment in the private sector or possibly find another position in the Davis administration.

The break between Democrats Burton and Davis over the appointment of Nielsen marked one of the few intraparty battles between the two that had surfaced as a public showdown.

Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Nielsen to two four-year terms on the board. Last May, Davis appointed him to fill the final 10 months of an unexpired term.

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