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Was Wright’s Pardon Wrong?

By Lyn Jensen, Carson Reporter

Most remaining records related to former California Gov. Jerry Brown’s pardon of former state legislator Rod Wright became public March 21, the result of a lawsuit by the First Amendment Coalition, which challenged the decades-old California Supreme Court practice of automatically sealing all documents related to executive clemency.

“The public has a right and interest in knowing what justification the governor has in [granting] a pardon,” said David Snyder, the coalition’s executive director.

Snyder recounted that, when the coalition sought the records related to Wright and “about five or six” other cases stemming from Brown’s large number of pardons, they found the court was automatically treating all such records as confidential, inconsistent with California law.

Unlike many other states, California checks the governor’s authority to pardon twice-convicted felons, by requiring approval from the state Supreme Court first. Wright fit the category because he had a prior conviction—from 1972, when he was 19, for auto theft—before his 2014 conviction for perjury and voter fraud, for living outside the district in which he was elected.

Wright spent six years representing the 25th state senate district, which included Carson and Inglewood, and 12 years in the legislature all together.

In 2008, an investigation by the Los Angeles district attorney concluded that when Wright  ran for office in 2007-2008, he was not residing in a “domicile” in the 25th district—in Inglewood, as he claimed.

Wright was convicted on eight counts involving perjury and voter fraud, as he also used the Inglewood address for voting. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail (he actually served less than a day), three years’ probation, 1,500 hours of community service, and ordered to pay $2,000 restitution. He was also banned from ever holding state office again.

According to Wright’s application for a government pardon, he wanted to diminish the “continuing punishments” associated with a criminal record. He was not seeking to have his sentence commuted, but restoration of some citizenship rights.

The pardon investigation report claimed that, “Case law at the time supported Mr. Wright’s interpretation of the law governing ‘domicile.”’

In May 2018 the state passed a new law to clarify “domicile” when a legislator has more than one residence. It allows elected officials to live outside their district, as long as they use their voter registration address to determine their right to hold office. For example, someone who resided in the 25th District could run for a district in Orange County, provided that person was registered to vote in the Orange County district.

Snyder says he isn’t aware of any case that resembles Wright’s.

In September 2018 the California Board of Parole Hearings recommended a pardon for Wright at Brown’s request. After the formality of going to the California Supreme Court, Brown pardoned Wright in November 2018.

Some of the records from the Wright case were unsealed in January. They revealed Brown’s pardon and the new law were opposed by prosecutors, including Jackie Lacey, Los Angeles District Attorney.

“A grant of pardon for Mr. Wright would set him above the law, and encourage future candidates to break it,” Lacey wrote in a Sept. 6 letter to Brown.

Other documents revealed at the time showed Brown was under pressure from key Democratic allies, including eleven state legislators, to grant clemency to Wright.

Some information the court has determined must remain confidential, and some of the released records show redactions of personal information.

Snyder said the large number of pardons Brown issued — more than 1,100, far more than Schwarzenegger’s ten or Davis’ zero — prompted the First Amendment Coalition’s request to see the court records.

Lyn Jensen
Lyn Jensen
Lyn Jensen has been a freelance journalist in southern California since the 80s. Her byline has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Weekly, the Los Angeles Reader, Music Connection, Bloglandia, Senior Reporter, and many other periodicals. She blogs about music, manga, and more at lynjensen.blogspot.com and she graduated from UCLA with a major in Theater Arts. Follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

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