Gov. Kate Brown offered elaboration this week regarding her position on capital punishment, saying that she would continue a moratorium on the death penalty through her two-year term if she's elected in November.
To her credit, Brown made these comments before the Nov. 8 election; it's an extra piece of information voters can use as they weigh the gubernatorial race.
When she assumed office last year after the resignation of John Kitzhaber, Brown said she was personally against the death penalty and planned to continue the moratorium Kitzhaber had put in place. But she also said then that she planned to study the issue in more detail.
Well, apparently that study is over, according to a story this week in The Oregonian. A spokesman for Brown, Bryan Hockaday, told the newspaper in an email that "Gov. Brown will continue the death penalty moratorium, because after thoroughly researching the issues, serious concerns remain about the constitutionality and workability of Oregon's capital punishment law."
Hockaday said that reasons for Brown's decision include the "uncertainty of Oregon's ability to acquire the necessary execution drugs required by statute." (Hockaday declined to immediately release to the newspaper any of the studies or other information the governor relied upon to make her decision, but she should take pains to do that now and not wait for the inevitable records request.)
Hockaday added this note: "Looking nationally, America is on the verge of a sea change both by legislation and, more profoundly, through court decisions. The past few years have already seen a major shift in the landscape on capital punishment law, and Gov. Brown expects more changes are on the horizon."
That's probably a fair assessment. But it leaves work undone in Oregon, and if Brown is serious about this issue, she could help to lead that sea change.
The fact remains that the death penalty still is part of Oregon law. (Brown's opponent, Bud Pierce, has said he would follow the law and presumably would allow executions.)
Oregon voters haven't weighed in on the issue since 1984, when they approved the death penalty. Brown is right that a lot has changed in the three decades since then. It's possible that the state's voters might have a different view of the measure now. But we won't know for sure until we ask them.
Kitzhaber, for whatever reason, was reluctant to use any of his political capital to pursue the issue. But Brown should, assuming she wins on Election Day (and recent polls show her with a comfortable lead): She could push the 2017 Legislature to refer the issue to voters. Failing that, she could help drive an effort to use the initiative process to place the issue on a future ballot.
Even though Oregon still has 34 prisoners on death row, it's conducted only two executions in the last 50 years, and both of those occurred in the 1990s. No executions appear to be imminent in the state.
All that means that this would be an excellent time for Brown to show real leadership on the issue, instead of just hoping that she won't have the occasion to explain again to Oregon voters why she's unwilling to enforce what remains the law of the state.