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Time for Oregon to re-examine capital punishment

John Kitzhaber was re-elected to a fourth term as Governor of Oregon. This in and of itself is a remarkable achievement. The situation is even more interesting when considering the swarm of scandals which Kitzhaber successfully swatted in winning. Yet I would like to focus on a single issue which did not end up playing as prominent of a role in the campaign as I thought it would: capital punishment. Given the relative silence on this issue during the campaign, and given the governor's re-election, I think it is highly significant for the near future of Oregon politics.

Capital punishment was up for discussion because early in his term, Governor Kitzhaber effectively halted all capital punishment proceedings in the state. This came to a head because a particular death row inmate had forsworn further appeals and was electing to die.

Kitzhaber was deeply troubled by the memory of the two executions which happened during his first pair of terms. Likewise, he questioned the logic of a death row system which effectively only proceeded to execution if the inmate gave up and asked to die. Therefore he issued an indefinite stay on this inmate's execution. Moreover, the Governor announced that no other executions would proceed during the duration of his term in office. (He was not commuting the inmates' sentences, so it is possible that a subsequent governor could reverse course and executions could continue.)

This act raised various levels of controversy. On the first level, the inmate wanted to reject the clemency and demanded to be put to death in spite of the Governor's action. The case went to the Oregon Supreme Court, which ruled that the Governor's power of reprieve is unconditional.

Above that, some citizens were upset that Kitzhaber was unilaterally stopping capital punishment in Oregon. This, they argued, was contrary to the law and the will of the people of Oregon, and against the intent of the clemency powers given the governor in the state constitution. In this, the Governor was essentially shirking his duties.

I was among Kitzhaber's supporters in this move. And now the Governor has been re-elected with this policy still standing. I believe this possibly signals that Oregon voters are ready to remove capital punishment in this state.

The only way to know for sure would be to have an initiative on this topic in the next election. Oregon voted the death penalty into law in 1984. That is more than a generation ago. Popular opinion on gay marriage changed in ten years, and Oregon voters reversed themselves on marijuana legalization in only two. It's time to put the question to the people again. I believe the measure would pass, and the death penalty will be repealed in Oregon.

In addition to his personal objections, Kitzhaber is ultimately calling for the same re-examination. The system should be scrapped or fixed, he says. Let's find out the will of the people.

The curious case of Oregon measures 46 & 47

While reading the 2012 Oregon voter's guide, I noticed that Secretary of State candidates Seth Woolley and Robert Wolfe both call out the incumbent Kate Brown for not enforcing ballot measure 47. Measure 47 was approved by voters in 2006 and enacted strict campaign finance reforms. My first reaction was "that's outrageous!" and noted with some cynicism that the Republican challenger Knute Buehler was silent on the issue in his blurb.

After looking into the issue, I now agree with the Secretary's position. The issue is simple, and it is not as nefarious as the big two parties playing politics with the law. The simple matter is that measure 47 is unconstitutional. It relied on a partner measure 46 to amend the Oregon constitution to be enforceable. However, measure 46 was rejected by the voters (which makes an interesting case study in direct democracy). So the campaign finance reforms of measure 47 are on the books but unenforceable under the status quo.

The Oregon Supreme Court has now ruled on this issue supporting the Secretary's position in a decision handed down on October 4th. I can only presume that this was after the voters' pamphlet blurbs were submitted. The Court opinion points out that the very text of measure 47 admits that it is lifeless without a change to the text or interpretation of the Oregon constitution (let alone the implications of the US Supreme Court Citizens United ruling).

Kate Brown's predecessor Bill Bradbury was advised by the Oregon Department of Justice that attempting to enforce measure 47 would be fruitless. And indeed it would have been: it would have brought doomed cases before the court and disrupted electoral fundraising. No doubt that Secretary Brown would be facing the converse complaints if she did attempt to enforce the law: "she's wasting judicial resources and stifling free speech!"

Measure 47 was doomed by the fickle nature of the Oregon electorate, not by a conspiracy between the Secretary of State and Attorney General. Supporters of campaign finance reform need to find a new avenue besides blaming the incumbent.

Category: politics Tags: Oregon