I still remember back in 1988 sitting in a Chinese restaurant when then-Gov. Bill Clinton took a napkin and listed on one side the Democratic governors who were against the death penalty and, on the other, those who were for it. In its time, the issue was the third rail in American politics — the line that divided those who could win because they were considered tough on crime and those who would face electoral problems. A few years later, my friend Kathleen Brown was trounced in the governor’s race in California in large part because she opposed the death penalty.
Things have changed. Kathleen’s brother, Jerry, is now California’s governor. Barack Obama is now president. And last week, California’s new and very conservative chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, told a reporter that she had come to question the death penalty not because she thought it immoral for the state to take a life, and not even because she thought it might be administered to those who were in truth not guilty, but because it’s too expensive and ineffective.