The Oregon Supreme Court on Jan. 31 upheld the legality of House Bill 3078, a bill lawmakers passed in 2017, and which in part reduced criminal sentences for property crimes specified in 2008's Ballot Measure 57.
In a 2017 case in Lincoln County, the prosecution there challenged the legality of that sentencing reduction, which applied to certain property crimes. The state cited a provision of the Oregon Constitution that says lawmakers may not reduce sentences "approved by the people" without a two-thirds majority of both chambers. (HB 3078 passed by a simple majority.)
That bill also contained a number of other policy changes proposed by criminal justice reformers led by House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland).
Williamson and her allies have regularly clashed with the state's district attorneys over the appropriate length of sentences.
The trial court judge in Lincoln County, Thomas Branford, agreed with the state's position—that the Legislature failed to meet the constitutional two-thirds requirement for changing sentences "passed by the people."
But the defendant in the case, Santiago Maximo Vallin, appealed. Several Democratic lawmakers, plus civil liberties and legal advocacy groups, filed briefs in support of Vallin's position.
In a unanimous decision written by Chief Justice Martha Walters, howver, the state's highest court found that because the Legislature had previously voted in 2009 by a two-thirds majority to temporarily reduce the sentences established by Measure 57, those sentences had no longer been "approved by the people," but instead amended by the Legislature through that vote.
"Once the legislature musters the required two-thirds majority to enact a reduction of a voter-approved sentence, the resulting sentence has been enacted by the legislature, not 'approved by the people,' and therefore is not subject to Article I, section 33's super-majority requirement," Walters' opinion says.
In a statement, Williamson, a chief sponsor of HB 3078, called the decision "a very positive step forward."
"Thanks to this ruling, we can continue to make investments in effective treatment programs that make our communities safer and ensure that we continue to bend the cost-curve on ballooning corrections budgets," she said.
The Partnership for Safety and Justice, a non-profit that advocates for criminal justice reform, also applauded the decision.
"This decision affirms what Oregon lawmakers knew when they passed the Safety and Savings Act [HB 3078]: our criminal justice system is broken," the group's executive director, Andy Ko, said in a statement. "It's time to bring our justice system into the 21st century. We are excited about the work ahead."
Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote, who led prosecutors' opposition to the sentencing changes in HB 3078, said he and his peers respect the court's decision and will comply with it. But Foote lamented what he said was the Oregon Department of Justice's failure to zealously represent prosecutors' positions and the impact the ruling could have.
"In the criminal appeal of State v. Vallin, the Oregon Department Justice, which normally handles appeals for district attorneys' offices, took the unusual step of prohibiting any argument in favor of the successful position the Lincoln District Attorney's Office took at the trial level," Foote said in a statement.
"We are very concerned that the unique power of Oregon's initiative process has been badly damaged by the actions of the Oregon legislature and the court's decision," he added. "We are further concerned that the strong sentences overwhelmingly passed by the voters in Ballot Measure 57 for repeat felony property offenders will continue to be reduced." (DOJ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Attorney Ellen Rosenblum says her agency did indeed decline to support the prosecution's argument on appeal.
"After a thorough review, my office determined the state's position in the Vallin case would be to concede that the trial judge's decision was wrong," Rosenblum said in a statement. "Despite our concession of error, the Oregon Supreme Court, in a 17-page unanimous opinion, bent over backwards to consider all the arguments that were presented at the trial court level."
That included, Rosenblum said, arguments Foote put forward in a separate lawsuit.
"Thus, Mr. Foote, through his lawyer, Tom Christ, made all the arguments that he claims the Oregon DOJ 'forbade'. Frankly, I believe Mr. Foote is simply unhappy that our office disagreed with his legal analysis." (Disclosure: Rosenblum is married to Richard Meeker, the co-owner of WW's parent company.)