Proving that money isn't the only way to get the attention of politicians, in one of his last acts as chief executive of California, Governor Schwarzenegger partially commuted the prison sentence of Esteban Nunez, the son of the former Speaker of the California Assembly, Fabian Nunez. The press has been abuzz about this decision, but is this much ado about nothing?
Less than half a year ago Esteban Nunez pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and was sentenced to 16 years in state prison, for his involvement in the death of Luis Santos at San Diego State University in 2008. In exchange, the prosecutors agreed to drop a murder charge that would have carried a life sentence.
Governor Schwarzenegger reduced that sentence to seven years, stating that Esteban Nunez was not the one to inflict the mortal knife wound that killed college student Luis Dos Santos. Governor Schwarzenegger also pointed to the fact that Nunez had no prior criminal record.
Santos' family is reportedly considering filing suit against Schwarzenegger for failing to notify the Santos family prior to the commutation. After the commutation, Schwarzenegger sent a letter apologizing to the Santos family for not giving them advance notice of his plans, but not for the commutation itself.
I'm going to go against what I assume is popular sentiment and presume for the sake of argument that there may have been viable reasons to shorten Esteban's sentence. In addition to the rationales that Governor Schwarzenegger suggests, Esteban's trial attorney contends that the trial judge indicated before the plea bargain was reached that Esteban would obtain a more lenient sentence. For a number of reasons, that is an issue that cannot be appealed. Therefore, Governor Schwarzenegger was essentially the last stop for that argument.
But here's the issue, and it is not one unique to Esteban, former Speaker Nunez, or Governor Schwarzenegger. Esteban's case, even assuming it was worthy of commutation, got the Governor's attention because of his father's ties to the governor.
Governor Schwarzenegger worked closely with former Speaker Nunez to pass AB-32, California's landmark clean energy law. The former speaker now works at a consulting firm with Governor Schwarzenegger's former communications director.
If Esteban deserved a lighter sentence, that fact is a failure of the criminal justice system. It is also a tragic reminder that similarly situated criminals, whose relatives do not have the governor's ear, likely receive dissimilar treatment.
If Esteban received a fair and appropriate sentence, Governor Schwarzenegger's actions strike at the foundation of our form of government. Political decisions based on connections, like those based on monetary donations, harm the public confidence in the integrity of a democratic system.
Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday at noon. She is the Director of Political Reform at the Center for Governmental studies and an Adjunct Professor at Loyola Law School.