Mercy, confidentiality, ghost guns, wildfires and the ‘Game of College’

Good morning, California.

“I would not say that it’s been watered down. … I think most of our our supporters realize that this is a major step forward.”—Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, San Diego Democrat, on her Assembly Bill 392 to limit police use of deadly force, as detailed by CALmatters’ Laurel Rosenhall. That legislation is expected to be voted on by the Assembly today.

Trying to shed light on pardons

Gov. Gavin Newsom

Gov. Gavin Newsom has filed his first petition seeking the California Supreme Court’s approval to pardon a former prisoner for her crimes. Whether or not the pardon is approved, the request could lead to a change in the secrecy surrounding such filings.

Back up: Under California law, governors must obtain the state Supreme Court’s approval before pardoning individuals who have served their sentences and had prior felony convictions. Governors also need the court’s approval to reduce prison sentences via clemency of incarcerated people who had prior felonies.

  • Governors file petitions with the court under seal.
  • During Gov. Jerry Brown’s tenure, the First Amendment Coalition began asking the justices to unseal the records.

Newsom filed a motion to pardon Susan H. Burton in April. Burton, who served stints in prison in the 1980s and ’90s, has become an author and a voice for reform, as told by the L.A. Times’ Gale Holland in 2018. Newsom filed the document under seal.

Responding to a First Amendment Coalition petition, the California Supreme Court last week directed that Newsom refile the petition publicly by June 5, or justify why some or all of it should remain sealed. The justices filed similar notices in five prior clemency cases filed by Brown, and asked Newsom to respond to those cases as well by June 5. 

Glen A. Smith of the First Amendment Coalition: “The governor should follow the rules of court just like everybody else. … Court files are public.”

Why confidentiality matters

San Quentin State Prison

Following in past governors’ footsteps, Gavin Newsom is defending the confidentiality of petitions he files with the California Supreme Court seeking approval to pardon prisoners for past crimes.

  • Gov. Jerry Brown sought to keep the petitions confidential, as he granted 1,332 pardons and 283 clemency requests, more than any governor before him. Newsom filed his first petition under seal to the Supreme Court last month. (See the item above.)
  • On Tuesday, Newsom spokesman Brian Ferguson issued a statement to me saying such petitions include “sensitive and personal details about the life and history of the applicant and other parties who may be discussed in the file.”

Petitions may include medical information “and mental health history and psychological evaluations; substance use history; family history, including details of physical harm and sexual abuse; and gang involvement including information that, if disclosed, could pose significant risk to the safety and security of prison staff and inmates.”

The statement added: “Inhibiting the ability of victims, law enforcement, family members and medical personnel to speak candidly on these matters would significantly hamper the governor’s ability to fully evaluate and understand each case.”

More to come in the weeks and months ahead.

Liability law could burn water districts

Thomas Fire, December 2017

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is in bankruptcy largely because of wildfire costs. Now, water districts are seeking protection against California’s fire-related liability law, believing their financial stability is at risk even if their actions and operations had nothing to do with causing a fire.

  • Some history: In 2012, the Yorba Linda water district was found liable for $70 million in costs related to a 2008 fire. Although the water district didn’t cause the fire, the fire damaged a pumping station, rendering it unable to deliver water to douse the blaze.
  • Now, two Ventura County water districts face similar so-called inverse condemnation lawsuits because of damage to their pumping facilities in the 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

California Water Service, a private water utility serving 2 million customers, is seeking a change in the law. It’s leading the effort on behalf of more than 15 water districts and unions representing the districts’ workers.

Justin Skarb of California Water Service said: “Water utilities that don’t cause fires shouldn’t be held responsible for those fires.”

Separately, the state is expected today to release a report on issues related to wildfires. That report, ordered by legislation approved in 2018, could offer recommendations related to distribution of costs related to fires.

Still combatting 'ghost' guns

Ghost guns are undetectable to authorities.

Ghost guns are simple to assemble, undetectable to authorities—and they’re a way for criminals to evade California’s restrictive gun laws, according to an investigative report by Alain Stephens for The Trace in partnership with NBC affiliates in California.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reports that 30% of all guns now recovered by agents in the state have no serial number and thus cannot be traced.

Graham Barlowe, of ATF’s Sacramento field office told Stephens: “This has become something for people that are actual practitioners of violence.”

The Legislature passed a law in 2016 requiring people to register homemade weapons. But Trace reports that only 2,214 ghost guns have been registered under that law, and no one has been prosecuted under that statute for having an unregistered ghost gun.

On Tuesday, the Assembly approved and sent to the Senate Assembly Bill 879 by Assemblyman Mike Gipson of Carson.

  • The bill would treat unfinished receivers, the metal frame onto which other components of a firearm are attached, as a legal gun.
  • Licensed gun dealers would have to sell the frame.
  • The Legislature approved a nearly identical bill last year, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, saying he worried about the unintended consequences of treating “certain metal components” as a firearm.

Gipson told me about instances in which ghost guns were sold to gang members in his district.

“It’s against the law to make bombs. Why not guns?”

  • A question remains: What of guns created by 3-D printers?

Introducing the ‘Game of College’

Try to make it through college debt-free with our interactive.

Can you make it through college debt-free? Play our new interactive game and find out.

  • Created by CALmatters news developer John Osborn D’Agostino and higher education reporter Felicia Mello in collaboration with the Hechinger Report, the Game of College puts you in the shoes of a student trying to enroll in, pay for and graduate from college. It’s a fun and informative look at the very serious challenges many students face on the way to a degree.

Individual choices play a role in success, the game shows, but so do structural factors such as how many counselors a student’s high school has, and whether their parents went to college. Play the game several times to see how changing variables like household income affects your score.

  • For more of the best national education coverage delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for The Hechinger Report’s free newsletter.

Commentary at CALmatters

Robert GutierrezCalifornia Taxpayers Association: Two tax increase measures have reached the floors of the Senate and Assembly. Both threaten to delete Proposition 13’s important taxpayer protections from the California Constitution. Put simply, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 1 and Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 would be taxes on California affordability.

Courtney Jensen, TechNet: Voice-recognition systems have streamlined our daily activities, from turning on the lights to important reminders about taking medications. Assembly Bill 1395 by Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, a Republican from San Luis Obispo, could halt this technology’s advancement.

Dan Walters, CALmatters: Welcome to Sacramento, where the state budget is written in secret and decisions on important bills are made behind closed doors.


Please email or call me with tips, suggestions and insights, [email protected], 916.201.6281. Thanks for reading, please tell a friend and sign up here.

See you tomorrow.

Latest in Newsletters

The Hurricane Hunters fly a WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft into the North Pacific to meet an atmospheric river on January 28, 2020. Photo by Rachel Becker for CalMatters


Dams at risk + Riding atmospheric rivers + Coronavirus concerns


Evan Low’s fundraising + The shifting 9th Circuit’s abortion ruling + Hard living in Salinas

California Assembly minority leader Marie Waldron speaks at a rally to repeal AB 5


Dreaming in Salinas about a home + Gig economy battle ahead + The water fight to come

Like a bullhorn, hundreds of millions of campaign dollars are amplifying the message from key industries to California voters.


Politicians skirt disclosure law + Oil plays big in legislative races + Campaign money’s outsized influence


State of the State: Newsom takes a risk by focusing on homelessness + Challenging open drug use + L.A. County gives jail inmates a break

Sen. Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally at Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, CA on February 17, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters


A politician’s charity + Bernie Sanders’ rise + A personal note