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Chief justice: Initiative process needs reform

 

California Chief Justice Ronald George told a Stanford University symposium Friday that the state's voter initiative process has helped to make the state government dysfunctional and "is sorely in need of reform."

George, who has presided over the state Supreme Court since 1996, gave the keynote speech at a Stanford Law School conference on state constitutions.

In a prepared text of his remarks, George said the ease with which California's constitution can be amended by voters has resulted in "perpetual instability of state constitutional law" and conflicting mandates.

The conflicts, he said, include voter-approved constitutional restrictions on taxes combined with requirements for specified levels of spending on public transportation and schools.

"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," the chief justice said.

The state's voter initiative process, established as a populist reform in 1911, allows citizens to pass laws or amend the California constitution by a majority vote.

Proposed constitutional amendments can be placed on the ballot with the signatures of 8 percent of the number of voters in the last gubernatorial election, while proposed laws require the signatures of 5 percent.

Partly as a result of this process, California's 65,000-word constitution now has more than 500 amendments, compared with 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, George said.

George noted that in the same election in 2008 when California voters enacted Proposition 8, a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, they also approved a constitutional measure regulating the confinement of chickens in small cages.

"Chickens gained valuable rights in California on the same day that gay men and lesbians lost them," George said.

George was the author of the California Supreme Court ruling that found by a 4-3 vote in May 2008 that the state constitution provided a right to same-sex marriage.

A year later, he wrote the high court ruling that concluded by a 6-1 vote in May 2009 that voters had the authority to amend the constitution to ban gay and lesbian marriage by approving Proposition 8 in November 2008.

George told the Stanford symposium that because initiative backers are allowed to pay for the gathering of signatures, a proposal with sufficient funding is likely to qualify for the ballot and then may have a good chance of passing.

Conversely, an initiative without enough funding for an expensive television campaign is unlikely to pass, whatever its merits may be, George said.

The chief justice said the initiative process was made part of the state constitution in 1911 to curb the power of special interests, such as railroads, that then controlled the Legislature.

But now, George said, "A student of government might reasonably ask ... Has the voter initiative now become the tool of the very types of special interests it was intended to control and an impediment to the effective functioning of a true democratic process?"

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