Inside the Capitol: Letters to the Journal

The state Capitol in Sacramento, home of the Senate and Assembly. (Photo: Kit Leong, via Shutterstock)

One way to help figure out the legislative intent behind a particular measure is a letter written by the bill’s author that is published in the Assembly Daily Journal or the Senate Daily Journal.

These letters — there are many each year — may be used by the bill’s author to explain an ambiguity in the measure or explain the purpose of particular changes in the law as done by the bill, for example.

In the Assembly and Senate, such a “letter to the journal” is a formal matter.

The letter must be on the legislator’s letterhead and signed by that legislator. The general custom and practice of the two houses of the California Legislature is to have the respective leadership staff (both majority and minority parties) review the contents of the letter and determine whether they have any objections.

The Assembly Speaker’s office also reviews and approves letters, as does the Senate President pro tempore’s office. The two Republican Leaders in either house provide a similar review and approval.

If approval is not received by both sides of the aisle, then the legislator can request that the letter be printed in the Daily Journal with a roll call vote of the house. If that occurs, then a majority of those present and voting are required to approve the printing of the letter.

So, while letters to the journal usually are printed with unanimous consent in the respective house, ultimately that is not necessary as only a majority of the legislators who vote on the motion to print the letter must vote to approve publishing it.

California courts can use these letters to help determine the intent of the Legislature, although different versions of the bill, committee and floor analyses, and other items are generally given greater weight than these letters.

Nonetheless, a Journal letter may be the best indicator available regarding the intent of the bill’s author and so they should be consulted.

In the fall of 2018, in an effort to assist those conducting legislative history and intent research, I reviewed 23 years’ worth of Assembly Daily Journals and 16 years’ worth of Senate Daily Journals in order to compile the two files. These research tools were updated through the 2020  legislative session and will be annually updated.

The first file contains letters published in the Assembly Daily Journal from 1996 through 2020 and the second contains letters published in the Senate Daily Journal from 2003 through 2020.

In both instances, these files are broken down by legislative session. Then,  they list the bill number, bill author, subject matter of the bill, and page number from the respective Journal where the letter can be found and cited.

These lists will be updated each year at the conclusion of the Legislative Session.

Editor’s Note: : Chris Micheli, an attorney and adjunct professor at McGeorge School of Law, is a founder of the Sacramento lobbying firm Aprea & Micheli.

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