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Dan Walters

Dan Walters writes for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

Jerry Brown may be fuming that a Superior Court judge has blocked, at least temporarily, his ballot measure to overhaul criminal sentencing laws.

If he wants someone to blame, he should look in the mirror.

The governor tried to short-circuit the process that initiative measures must endure to get to the signature-gathering phase.

Rather than merely submitting his measure to the attorney general for what’s called “title and summary,” he persuaded the sponsor of another measure dealing with juvenile justice to incorporate his much more extensive proposal as an amendment.

Since the juvenile justice measure was on the verge of clearance, the tactic offered Brown three advantages, to wit:

—It would avoid having a competing criminal justice measure on the ballot that might confuse or alienate voters.

—It would speed up processing, allowing Brown to begin the signature-gathering phase more quickly, no small matter given the large number of measures already in the field.

—It would essentially eliminate the usual 65-day waiting period that allows interested parties to review and comment on the title and summary, whose wording is often critical to passage or failure.

However, district attorneys who say Brown’s measure would hamstring prosecutions and endanger the public challenged the governor’s work-around tactic, and Sacramento Superior Court Judge Shellyanne W.L. Chang ruled last week that Attorney General Kamala Harris “abused her discretion” and should not have accepted it as an amendment.

“The theme and purpose of the original initiative was reform of the juvenile justice system,” Chang declared. “The amendment deals with, primarily, reform of the adult justice system.”

Brown should “stand in line like everybody else,” prosecutors’ attorney Tom Hiltachk said after the ruling.

Yes, he should.

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Brown could have written his measure, submitted it to Harris and gone through the process like everyone else, but he either didn’t want to devote the time necessary or was being tricky to avoid a battle over the title and summary.

Brown’s aides are saying that if Chang’s ruling stands, he’d be forced to start over and wouldn’t have enough time to place the measure on the November ballot. That may or may not be true, but again, it was Brown’s choice to delay while sponsors of dozens of other measures were following the law.

Brown and his allies are appealing Chang’s ruling. And it’s conceivable they would win, even though her conclusion about the nature of his measure is absolutely on point.

Were Brown to win on appeal, it would satisfy him and help his ambitions to leave a legacy, but it would cause major damage to an initiative system that’s already been badly distorted.

It would encourage others to adopt similar hide-the-pea tactics on future measures, very much like the sneaky practice of Capitol politicians called “gut-and-amend” that is also aimed at shutting out the public.

Dan Walters writes for The Sacramento Bee.

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