Flexibility on Appellate Jurisdiction

“Jurisdiction” and “flexibility” are terms that don’t really go together . . . most of the time.  But I’ve taken note before of the willingness of California appellate courts to “save” appeals through various devices, such as a generous construction of the notice of appeal, or treating an appeal from a non-appealable order as a writ petition.  In fact, these devices are used to save appeals from plainly non-appealable orders.

They can also be employed where appellate jurisdiction — or lack of it— is less than clear, as in People v. Segura, case no. S148536 (Aug. 4, 2008), where the Supreme Court avoids deciding the issue by treating the appeal as a petition for writ of habeas corpus.  Relegating the appellate jurisdiction issue to a footnote, a unanimous Supreme Court set forth the parties’ competing views on appealability, then noted that the Attorney General, who contended the order was not appealable, nonetheless urged the court to review it.  The result:

Nonetheless, the Attorney General requests that we treat the purported appeal as a petition for writ of habeas corpus and, in the interest of judicial economy and because the issue is a matter of concern to many persons other than defendant, decide the case on its merits.  (See generally People v. Banks (1959) 53 Cal.2d 370, 379-381 & fn. 5.)  The Attorney General points out that a probationer in constructive custody may petition for a writ of habeas corpus (In re Stier (2007) 152 Cal.App.4th 63, 82), and in analogous circumstances appeals have been so treated.  (Gallardo, supra, 77 Cal.App.4th at p. 986).  We do so here in the interest of judicial economy and because the issue is of general concern.

Just last week, I wrote about the Supreme Court’s inexplicable avoidance of a squarely presented issue of appellate jurisdiction (albeit in a long ago case), in which they decided the case without either answering the jurisdictional question or even using some device to “save” the appeal, merely because neither party raised it. Here, while the court did not settle the appealability issue, they at least worked their way around it.

Interestingly enough, this nugget regarding appellate jurisdiction comes in a case where the question for review is whether the trial court had jurisdiction to grant a post-judgment defense motion to reduce a jail term bargained for in a plea agreement imposing probation.  The defendant had already served the sentence (released early) but needed the sentence reduced to avoid deportation.  The trial court denied the motion, saying it lacked jurisdiction to reduce the bargained-for term.  The court of appeal reversed.  The Supreme Court reverses the court of appeal:  

We granted review to determine whether a prescribed jail term that constitutes a material provision of a plea agreement conferring as its chief benefit, a grant of probation in lieu of a prison sentence, may be modified by the trial court in the exercise of its authority to modify or revoke probation during the probationary period.  As we shall explain, in this matter defendant was granted probation, for which he otherwise was ineligible in view of the prior conviction allegation, in exchange for entering into a plea agreement comprised of various terms, including confinement in the county jail for a specified number of days.  He knowingly and voluntarily accepted those terms of the agreement.  The trial court’s statutory authority to modify conditions of probation in the exercise of its jurisdiction over a probationer did not extend to modifying a material term of a plea agreement that bestowed the privilege of probation subject to defendant’s service of a specified jail term.  Accordingly, we reverse the judgment rendered by the Court of Appeal.