Saturday, October 10, 2009

California's top judge critical of the state's referendum process

I totally agree with California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George: the state's referendum process is out of control and makes effective government in the state impossible. (More from a previous Ezra Klein post on the topic.)

When I lived in California, I adopted a "just say no" policy on initiatives. My default posture was to vote "no" (or whatever amounted to "no change") and only cast my rare "yes" votes on those occasions when research led me to believe that the change was actually a good idea.

A lot of people, unfortunately, cast way too many casual or emotion-based votes when they get to the ballot initiatives. Complex issues get boiled down to soundbites, and in California, the voter wins: the legislature can't easily overturn voter initiatives. The result is that the state is heavily constrained in how it can raise and spend money. And believe me, Californians expect a lot from their state yet don't allow their government to effectively provide those services.

Chief Justice George had this to say:

Justice George wrote that perhaps the “most consequential” impact of the referendum process is that it limits “how elected officials may raise and spend revenue.” He added, “California’s lawmakers, and the state itself, have been placed in a fiscal straitjacket by a steep two-thirds-vote requirement — imposed at the ballot box — for raising taxes.”

He added: “Much of this constitutional and statutory structure has been brought about not by legislative fact-gathering and deliberation, but rather by the approval of voter initiative measures, often funded by special interests. These interests are allowed under the law to pay a bounty to signature-gatherers for each signer. Frequent amendments — coupled with the implicit threat of more in the future — have rendered our state government dysfunctional, at least in times of severe economic decline....”

Beyond budget matters, Justice George, a Republican appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1991, was critical of a 2008 voter initiative that ended same-sex marriage in California. In May 2008 the Supreme Court struck down the state’s statutes limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples, with an opinion written by Justice George citing a 1948 decision that reversed the state’s interracial marriages ban. But in the November elections that year, a ballot measure known as Proposition 8 amended the constitution to override the court.

Citing a successful ballot initiative that same Election Day that regulated the confinement of fowl in coops, Justice George said, “Chickens gained valuable rights in California on the same day that gay men and lesbians lost them.” He added, “The court over which I preside frequently is called upon to resolve legal challenges to voter initiatives. Needless to say, we incur the displeasure of the voting public when, in the course of performing our constitutional duties as judges, we are compelled to invalidate such a measure.” [emphasis added]

[As an editorial comment, I find it surprising that the New York Times has better coverage of George's address than either the Los Angeles Times or the San Francisco Chronicle. I sometimes feel that I oversample the news as published at, but there's a reason it's considered the nation's newspaper of record.]



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home