A state judge on Wednesday blocked Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed ballot initiative to reduce California's prison population, despite warnings that her decision could effectively stall its consideration by voters until 2018.
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne Chang sided with district attorneys who argued that Brown improperly bypassed normal procedures.
She barred state Attorney General Kamala Harris from issuing documents — the title of the initiative and a summary of what it would do — that would let supporters begin gathering signatures for Brown's proposal.
Brown amended an existing initiative that would strip prosecutors of their power to decide if juveniles should be tried as adults, leaving that decision to judges. He added amendments last month to increase sentencing credits for adult inmates and to allow earlier parole for nonviolent felons.
"The court finds that the attorney general abused her discretion," Chang said, ruling that the amendments radically change the focus of the original initiative without allowing for necessary public comment.
"What the amendment did was the type of mischief that the Legislature had in mind" when it required that amendments to ballot initiatives be related to the original initiative, the judge said.
Friday was the deadline for Harris to act, but Chang agreed with the California District Attorneys Association and Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert after they sued over the ballot measure.
Proponents plan to file an emergency appeal to overturn Chang's ruling.
But even if Brown's attorneys succeed in overturning Wednesday's ruling, it could push the campaign into a costly signature-gathering drive or risk delaying it until 2018.
The governor, who is termed out of office in 2018, has $24 million in his campaign account that he can spend on political campaigns.
That still might not be enough to swiftly gather the required nearly 586,000 signatures, given the crush of competition from numerous pending ballot initiatives, said attorney James Harrison.
"It makes it impossible," said Harrison, who argued on behalf of the original proponents who allowed Brown to alter their measure. That would deny voters the opportunity to consider sweeping public safety reforms, he told reporters.
Harris spokeswoman Rachele Huennekens said the attorney general also will appeal Chang's ruling to the 3rd appellate district or the state Supreme Court. Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the governor, declined comment other than to also say that the state would appeal.
Chang acted after the California District Attorneys Association and Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert sued over the ballot measure.
"Our case was about the rule of law and the due process that is afforded to the people of California in the initiative system," association president Pat McGrath said in a statement after the ruling.
The prosecutors who sued said Brown must file a new initiative instead of changing an existing proposal.
Deputy Attorney General Paul Stein said Brown met the deadline for submitting amendments that reasonably related to the initiative's original focus, even though it was amended after the end of the public comment period.
The 2014 state law requires 30 days of public comment as a way to improve the initiative process. The same law lets initiative sponsors amend their proposal and lets the state Legislature hold hearings before measures qualify for the ballot.
Thomas Hiltachk, the attorney representing prosecutors, said lawmakers intended for amendments to be narrowly focused to fix drafting errors or correct unintended consequences. Brown's sweeping revision, he said, "effectively repeals by constitutional supremacy, I think we counted up to now 40 statutes or provisions in statutes ... and at least six voter-approved statewide initiatives. None of those deal with juvenile justice."
"It's a massive policy shift" that would allow earlier parole for tens of thousands of inmates, a change that he said left the original juvenile justice provision as a mere afterthought.