- Associated Press - Thursday, May 5, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - California Supreme Court justices questioned Thursday whether Gov. Jerry Brown made sweeping changes to an existing ballot proposal that shortchanged voters in his bid to put his plan to reduce the state’s prison population on the November ballot.

But other justices on the seven-judge panel said at a hearing that the legislature wanted to give initiative proponents broad latitude to make changes, and public comment on proposed initiatives had to stop at some point. The justices did not immediately issue a ruling.

At stake are Brown’s amendments to a juvenile justice initiative increasing sentencing credits for adult inmates and allowing earlier parole for non-violent felons.

Brown says the changes are needed to help keep the inmate population below the level required by federal judges.

But a Sacramento County judge in February said the governor went too far when he amended the juvenile justice initiative, violating a 2014 law that requires that amendments are reasonably related to the original initiative and new initiatives receive 30 days of public comment.

Justice Ming Chin said Brown’s changes turned the measure into a constitutional amendment, and eliminating public comment on a proposed constitutional amendment seemed “wrong.” Justice Kathryn Werdegar also raised concerns about Brown’s changes.

“What’s the purpose of the comment period if after that, as here, the proposed initiative is changed,” she said. “The comment period becomes irrelevant and an exercise in futility.”

But Justice Goodwin Liu, a Brown appointee, questioned how far Brown’s amendments strayed from the original initiative, saying the court had approved measures before that seemed less related. Liu also said the public comment period had to “stop somewhere.”

Justice Carol Corrigan said it seemed “pretty clear” that the legislature wanted to give a “great deal of latitude to the proponents of any initiative.”

In her February ruling, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne Chang blocked Attorney General Kamala Harris from issuing documents that Brown’s supporters needed in order to gather the signatures required to put his initiative on this year’s ballot. The California Supreme Court has since allowed the signature-gathering process to continue while it decides the case.

Chang’s decision came in a lawsuit brought by the California District Attorneys Association and Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert.

They accused Brown of completely rewriting the original juvenile justice measure to sidestep the normal initiative process.

Thomas Hiltachk, an attorney for the district attorneys association, told the California Supreme Court Brown had pulled a “bait and switch,” and the court would encourage others to do the same if it allowed his amendments to stand.

Harris has countered that allowing Chang’s interpretation would invite similar lawsuits against nearly 40 other ballot measures that were amended after they were initially filed. She has argued that “substantive, even sweeping” amendments are permitted.

“Our concern here is that the trial court created an unworkable standard,” Paul Stein, representing the attorney general’s office, told the court.

Brown has said without amending the juvenile justice initiative, it is too late to start over and still collect the nearly 586,000 signatures needed for a ballot measure this year.

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Associated Press writer Don Thompson in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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