Santa Clara University

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Playing a Key Role in Justice Reform

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School of Law Professors (from right) Gerald Uelmen and Cookie Ridolfi worked on a state commission with SCU law alumnus Chris Boscia to reform the justice system.
Photo: Charles Barry
True to its Jesuit mission of social justice, Santa Clara University served as the hub for a landmark commission charged with finding reforms for California’s broken criminal justice system. The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice spent nearly four years researching solutions to thorny problems like the state’s bloated and ineffective death-penalty system; unfair or wrongful convictions; faulty eyewitness or informant testimony; DNA evidence-testing backlogs; prosecutorial misconduct; and inadequate defense counsel.

Former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp was the chairman of the group, and one of his first actions was to tap his longtime friend and colleague SCU School of Law Professor Gerald Uelmen to be the commission’s executive director. Van de Kamp described Uelmen as the even-keeled “anchor” of the commission.

In addition to Uelmen, School of Law Professor and Director of the Northern California Innocence Project Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi was selected as one of the 22 commissioners and provided an analysis of prosecutorial misconduct over a 10-year period. Santa Clara Law 2008 graduate Chris Boscia served as Uelmen’s executive assistant. Law Professor Ellen Kreitzberg contributed research on the death penalty.

The group’s final report, issued in mid-2008, contained an ambitious list of recommendations to “ensure that the administration of justice in California is just, fair and accurate.” Among the ideas: Double state spending on capital punishment prosecution and defense; reduce the number of crimes from the current 21 that are eligible for the death penalty; have police lineups be supervised by officers who are unaware of a suspect’s identity; disallow testimony by a jailhouse informant if it is uncorroborated by another witness; and require tape-recording of confessions.

Many recommendations were taken up by legislators along the way, only to be vetoed later by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Uelmen said it could take years before the full legacy of the commission is clear. But its work may yet carry on.

Since the report’s issuance, Ridolfi and Boscia have been doing a feasibility study for a new policy center that would conduct research devoted to the same goals as the commission on a nationwide basis. “This is not a California problem, it’s across the whole country,” says Ridolfi.

Santa Clara University’s central role in a social justice cause makes perfect sense, she adds. “Our public profile is about social justice. We care about social justice. We’ve been watering and feeding this environment for decades.”