This is the third in my series of posts about California Supreme Court cases interpreting the so-called "statutory repeal rule." My first and second posts in the series addressed five of the earliest cases (from the ‘30s and ‘40s) in which the Supreme Court interpreted this “rule.” As I explained in those posts, a close analysis of the early cases demonstrates that the “rule” is grounded in legislative intent. Accordingly, whether a statutory amendment applies retroactively to pending cases cannot be determined without considering both the wording of the amendment and the express and implied intent of the legislature (or electorate) in changing the law.
In In re Estrada, 63 Cal.2d 740 (1965), the Supreme Court (the same justice who authored the Sekt decision discussed in post #2) again addressed a statutory repeal and determined its meaning by analyzing legislative intent. When the defendant escaped from prison in June 1963, the crime of escape was punishable by two years’ imprisonment. By the time the defendant was sentenced in September 1963, the legislature had amended the Penal Code and escape was punishable by only one year’s imprisonment. Id. at 743. The Supreme Court determined that the statutory amendment did apply retroactively, and that the defendant was entitled to the benefit of the new, lesser sentence. Id., passim.
In so holding, the Supreme Court immediately turned to the question of intent:
The problem, of course, is one of trying to ascertain the legislative intent—did the Legislature intend the old or new statute to apply? Had the Legislature expressly stated which statute should apply, its determination, either way, would have been legal and constitutional. It has not done so. We must, therefore, attempt to determine the legislative intent from other factors.Id. at 744 (emphasis added). For purposes of the case before it, “[t]here is one consideration of paramount importance” that “leads inevitably to the conclusion that the Legislative must have intended, and by necessarily implication provided, that the amendatory statute should prevail.” Id. at 744-75 (emphasis added). That consideration was as follows:
When the Legislature amends a statute so as to lessen the punishment it has obviously expressly determined that its former penalty was too severe and that a lighter punishment is proper as punishment for the commission of the prohibited act. It is an inevitable inference that the Legislature must have intended that the new statute imposing the new lighter penalty now deemed to be sufficient should apply to every case to which it constitutionally could apply. The amendatory act imposing the lighter punishment can be applied constitutionally to acts committed before its passage provided the judgment convicting the defendant of the act is not final. This intent seems obvious, because to hold otherwise would be to conclude that the Legislature was motivated by a desire for vengeance, a conclusion not permitted in view of modern theories of penology.Id. at 745 (emphasis added). Later in the opinion, the court mentioned both the rule that new legislation is presumed to operate prospectively only and the “statutory repeal rule,” but then observed that neither canon of statutory construction should be “followed blindly in complete disregard of factors that may give a clue to the legislative intent.” Id. at 746. In addition, the presence or absence of a savings clause, express or implied, “certainly is not conclusive on the legislative intent ….” Id. at 747.
The Supreme Court employed similar reasoning in People v. Collins, 21 Cal.3d 208 (1978). In Collins, prior law criminalized both forcible and non-forcible oral copulation. In 1976, after the defendant was convicted for non-forcible oral copulation, but before he was sentenced, the Legislature repealed the old statute and enacted a new one with the same number, completely supplanting the old one. The new statute criminalized only forcible oral copulation. Id. at 211. The Supreme Court held that the conviction must be reversed because the statute on which it was based had been repealed. Again, the Supreme Court explained that this result hinged on the presumed Legislative intent behind the “statutory repeal rule”:
In Sekt v. Justice’s Court (1945) 26 Cal.2d 297, 304, we discussed the rule’s theoretical basis: it presumes the Legislature, by removing the proscription from specified conduct, intended to condone past acts. …. [A]n amendment eliminating criminal sanctions is a sufficient declaration of the Legislature’s intent to bar all punishment for the conduct so decriminalized.Id. at 212, 213 (emphasis added).
In both Estrada and Collins, if the “statutory repeal rule” had applied in the manner that the Courts of Appeal have recently applied it to Prop. 64—without reference to the electorate’s intent—the outcomes would have been the same, but the lengthy discussions of what the legislature intended would have been a total waste of time and effort. The Supreme Court is not known for engaging in idle, unnecessary examinations of legislative intent.
My next post on this topic will continue to address California Supreme Court precedent interpreting the “statutory repeal rule.”
UPDATE: I completed my analysis of California Supreme Court case law interpreting the "statutory repeal rule" in this article, which appeared in the San Francisco Daily Journal on May 31, 2006.