Deukmejian, George: Death Penalty in the senate


George Deukmejian: There was a lot of activity on the death penalty in the early 1970’s. It began with a California Supreme Court decision in 1972 which said that the death penalty in California was unconstitutional, and that it was to be considered cruel and unusual punishment under the California Constitution. I headed up a group to place an initiative on the ballot that in effect would overturn that ruling. We were able to qualify it for the ballot, and it passed overwhelmingly. I would say that occurred in 1974 or 1975 would be my guess. Then you had to have a statute to implement the constitutional amendment to reinstitute the death penalty. In the mean-time, there were also one or two significant rulings to the United States Supreme Court on this very subject. In 1975, Jerry Brown became governor. Jerry Brown was governor when we were pushing the statute to implement the death penalty in California. We also had in support the vote of the public on that constitutional amendment. Governor Jerry Brown was opposed to capital punishment as well, and a majority of the democrats in the senate were opposed, but there were some democrats who supported the death penalty. I carried the legislation – the statute to reinstitute it- and it went through the normal legislative process, and along the was there was a lot of spirited discussion because that subject is one that is very controversial and people hold very strong, yet genuine feelings on both sides of the issue. Throughout the course of considering that legislation there were a number of spirited debates and we got it to the Senate floor, and we finally got it passed in the senate and sent over to the assembly. But it was difficult for those of us who were in support of it because a majority of the democrats who were in the majority party were opposed, the governor was opposed, but we were able to get some of the democrats to go along with us. Also, I don’t think that Governor Jerry Brown used as much of his power as governor to stop it, and I think the reason was that he knew the public was strongly in support of the death penalty at that time by virtue of the vote that had taken place. Finally, it got through the assembly and came back to the senate for a final vote on amendments and so on, and Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the legislation. So now we had another series of debates about overriding the Governor’s veto. That doesn’t happen very often. During my eight years as governor, there was never one veto that was ever overridden, but that’s another story. We had this continuation of the debate on the death penalty at the time that the veto occurred, and we had to get enough votes to override the veto, and we were ultimate successful in doing that. In the course of this, of course Senator Moscone was on the other side of this issue from me, there was always a lot of discussions and debates that went on. But I think what carried the day for us was the fact that the people that voted for it and all the polls showed that the public strongly supported it. In this case, even though the democrats were in the majority, nevertheless they held the minority position on that issue.


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The Moscone oral history interviews are part of the George Moscone Collection, MSS 328.

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