The death penalty in California could be on the precipice of a dramatic change.

On Wednesday, the California Supreme Court will begin hearings in a case challenging the state’s application of the death penalty. The state’s highest court will consider whether to raise the bar for when a jury can sentence a defendant to capital punishment, a decision that could affect pending cases and potentially reverse death sentences for the 704 inmates already on California’s Death Row. It’s a move supported by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who in October took the unprecedented step of filing a brief urging the state Supreme Court to change how California applies the death penalty, arguing the current process is “infected by racism.”

The landmark hearing follows Newsom’s Friday executive order mandating an independent investigation into the case of Death Row inmate Kevin Cooper, who was convicted in 1985 of a quadruple murder but continues to maintain his innocence. Also Friday, Newsom granted 14 pardons, 13 commutations and eight medical reprieves, including pardons for two inmate firefighters who were facing deportation.

California’s reexamination of the death penalty comes amid a fraught debate over public safety in the wake of a string of mass shootings and a surge in gun violence. A lot of political futures — including Newsom’s — could be on the line. The governor angered some Californians by ordering a halt to the death penalty in 2019, just three years after voters rejected an attempt to end capital punishment. Recall organizers cite the order as a key reason to vote him out of office.

Capital punishment could also play a pivotal role in next year’s state attorney general race, with Newsom appointee Rob Bonta opposed to the death penalty and his main challenger so far, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, in favor of it.

A recent poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found that although 44% of California voters support repealing the death penalty, a sizable 21% remain undecided.

In the latest podcast episode, we discuss how wildfires, drought and the pandemic have changed California’s state parks.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 3,685,032 confirmed cases (+0.02% from previous day) and 62,011 deaths (+0.01% from previous day), according to a CalMatters tracker.

California has administered 37,513,067 vaccine doses, and 51.1% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. We’re also tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county and lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions.

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1. School district challenges pile up

Adults and children walk around Cleveland Elementary School on the last day of school, May 27, 2021 in Oakland. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

California is on track to notch a nearly record-breaking number of teacher retirements this year — but the tsunami is barely registering as a ripple in many school districts, partly because a record amount of students are also dropping out of public school, CalMatters’ Eli Wolfe reports. But other challenges loom: Many districts are scrambling to find enough teachers to staff summer school sessions, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hire for positions that were already hard to fill before the pandemic, such as special education teachers. Meanwhile, many educators feel ill-equipped to handle the mental health challenges and trauma that students will likely bring into the classroom after a year of isolation and Zoom school. California doesn’t mandate mental health training for K-12 teachers, and its average student-to-counselor ratio last year was 601 to 1 — more than twice the recommended ratio, the Los Angeles Times reports.

2. COVID worsening in some regions

Sacramento State nursing student Amanda Clark checks on vaccine patients on Jan. 29, 2021 at the University Union building. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

Californians gathered across the state on Monday for in-person Memorial Day ceremonies, the latest sign things are approaching normalcy as the state prepares to fully reopen and drop its mask mandate in two weeks. With a record-low statewide coronavirus positivity rate of 0.7% and more than half of eligible Californians fully vaccinated, conditions have never looked better. But in some areas, numbers are heading in the wrong direction, prompting some public health officials to warn the state should proceed with caution. In rural Shasta County, for example, more residents are hospitalized for COVID-19 now than in March — and nearly 20% of Siskiyou County’s COVID-19-related deaths since the onset of the pandemic have occurred since May 6, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. The surges appear to be due partly to vaccine hesitancy — also a major concern in Sacramento County, which is one of only eight counties stuck in the state’s second-most restrictive reopening tier.

We’ll be keeping track of whether Newsom’s massive vaccine incentive program prompts a noticeable uptick in inoculations.

3. Rooftop solar battle heats up

Rooftop solar panels on a home in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Rooftop solar panels on a home in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Just two weeks after California lawmakers killed more than 200 bills in a rapid-fire and often mysterious procedure known as the suspense file, another critical deadline looms: For bills to stand a chance of making it to Newsom’s desk, they have to be passed by the house where they were introduced by June 4 in order to be considered by the other chamber. We’ll be keeping an eye on which controversial proposals meet their doom — and noting which undergo significant changes in order to stay alive. One particularly contentious bill to reform the state’s solar panel subsidy program was already amended on Friday, in part to mollify critics who argue that slashing financial incentives for rooftop solar panels — and potentially charging monthly fees to have them — will impede California’s ability to meet its climate goals.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: How will California repay the billions of dollars it’s borrowed from the federal government for unemployment benefits?

Broadband for all: California must secure continuous funding to develop broadband infrastructure in poorly served communities, writes state Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Long Beach Democrat.

End eviction moratorium: Rather than extending a ban on evictions, state lawmakers should ensure rent relief programs function the way they were meant to, argues Christine Kevane LaMarca of the California Rental Housing Association.

Innovation infrastructure: State investments in the University of California’s network of accelerators and research facilities promise to be well repaid, writes Camille Crittenden of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society.

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Other things worth your time

New rule at Mendocino cafe: $5 fee for wearing a mask. // San Francisco Chronicle

House hunters are leaving California cities, and builders can’t keep up. // New York Times

California’s novel attempt at land reparations. // New Yorker

A fight over Jim Crow Road divides rural Northern California town. // Los Angeles Times

Lawmakers urge investigation by attorney general into PG&E Fire Victim Trust; trustee responds. // KRCR

San Francisco’s mental health care system fails two men: one killed, the other his alleged killer. // San Francisco Chronicle

A killer shadows a Los Angeles homeless camp. // Los Angeles Times

LAPD after George Floyd: Fewer officers, fewer arrests but hardly defunded. // Los Angeles Times

Will Hollywood film producers’ push for a union succeed? // Los Angeles Times

30,000 milkweeds planted around California in effort to save Western monarch butterfly. // San Francisco Chronicle

Treasure trove of fossils found in Sierra Nevada foothills. // CapRadio

2-year-old California girl is youngest American to become Mensa member. // CNN

See you tomorrow.

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...