Walking the line

Kitzhaber has taken on a divisive issue by urging repeal of the death penalty

Gov. John Kitzhaber is walking an awfully narrow line on the death penalty — but at least he's taking a leadership role in calling for its abolition in Oregon.

But with potentially bruising fights looming in the Legislature on PERS reform, the state's corrections policy and related budget issues, how much of his political capital is he willing to spend on the issue? And is he willing to spend more of that capital in the 2014 elections?

A legislative committee last week considered House Joint Resolution 1, a proposed constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty, which Oregon voters reinstated in 1984. If the measure passes the Legislature, voters will get a chance to consider it in November 2014.

Kitzhaber was not able to attend the hearing — he was at a convention of governors in Washington, D.C. — but he sent a letter to the committee. In the letter, he wrote: "Courts are applying stricter standards and continually raising the bar for prosecuting death penalty cases. For a state intent on maintaining a death penalty, the inevitable result will be bigger questions, fewer options and higher costs. It is time for Oregon to consider a different approach."

Kitzhaber's 2011 decision to issue a reprieve blocking the scheduled execution of twice-convicted murderer Gary Haugen kickstarted the current debate. At that time, the governor noted that he had allowed two executions during his earlier terms but had agonized over both decisions.

"I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong," he said in 2011. And he called for the Legislature to refer the matter to Oregon voters.

It's entirely possible that Oregon voters have changed their minds on the issue since 1984.

But the fact of the matter is that the governor of the state swears an oath of office to uphold the state's constitution. And the death penalty is part of Oregon's constitution.

In theory, by pushing the matter to the Legislature, Kitzhaber has bought himself some time on the issue — and considering that Oregon has executed only two prisoners since 1984, he may not need to buy much more.

But what happens if voters reject the proposed constitutional amendment in 2014 — and Kitzhaber runs for and wins re-election? Would he step down from office if he faced another death penalty case — or take a walk down another narrow line?

At the least, the legislative measure could force the death penalty onto the list of the hottest issues in the 2014 campaign. Kitzhaber called for a wide-ranging state discussion about the death penalty. And that's exactly what he may get.

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