Reminder to the Legislature: be careful what you try to amend

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ANALYSIS – I was recently reminded by a legal colleague about a state appellate court decision a few years ago and the limits on the Legislature’s power to amend a voter initiative. I think the court’s decision is important guidance to keep in mind as the 2023 Legislative Session gets underway.

In August 2019, the Third District Court of Appeal struck down a bill enacted by the California Legislature and Governor. In 2016, SB 1107 (Chapter 837) had proposed to amend Government Code Section 85300, which falls under the Political Reform Act of 1974, which was adopted by the voters as Prop. 9 in June 1974, and was subsequently amended by the voters in 1988 by Prop. 73.

SB 1107 had proposed to reverse the ban against public funding of political campaigns under specified circumstances, which had been put in place by Prop. 73. The plaintiffs sued to challenge the enactment of SB 1107 as an unlawful legislative amendment of a voter-approved initiative. The Third District Court of Appeal ruled that SB 1107 directly conflicted with the primary purpose of the Act, as amended by voter initiative. And, because SB 1107 did not further the purposes of the Act, it was deemed invalid by the appellate court.

As SB 1107 noted in its Legislative Counsel’s Digest, “The Political Reform Act of 1974, an initiative measure, provides that the Legislature may amend the act to further the act’s purposes upon a 2/3 vote of each house and compliance with specified procedural requirements. This bill would declare that it furthers the purposes of the act.”

In Section 1 of the bill (SB 1107), there were 13 legislative findings and declarations in support of the proposed changes to the Act. Sections 2 and 3 of the bill made the statutory changes that were challenged in the lawsuit. And, Section 6 of the bill had the following statement: “The Legislature finds and declares that this bill furthers the purposes of the Political Reform Act of 1974 within the meaning of subdivision (a) of Section 81012 of the Government Code.”

The August 2019 appellate court decision was Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association v. Newsom and the Court of Appeal stated, “We find that Senate Bill No. 1107 directly conflicts with a primary purpose and mandate of the Act, as amended by subsequent voter initiatives, to prohibit public funding of political campaigns. Accordingly, the legislation does not further the purposes of the Act, a requirement for legislative amendment of the Act.”

In addition, the Court of Appeal explained, “The Legislature made an express finding that Senate Bill No. 1107 did further the purposes of the Act. We are not bound by this finding and are not required to defer to it. (Amwest Surety Ins. Co. v. Wilson (1995) 11 Cal.4th 1243, 1253 (Amwest).)  We do, however, apply the general rule that ‘a strong presumption of constitutionality supports the Legislature’s acts.’” (Ibid.) “

The Court of Appeal also said, “Determining whether the legislative amendment furthers the purposes of the Act is a legal question that we determine independently. (Gardner, supra, 178 Cal.App.4th at p. 1374.)  The determination of the purpose of the Act is part of that legal question. “

Finally, the appellate court opined, “The power of the Legislature may be ‘practically absolute,’ but that power must yield when the limitation of the Legislature’s authority clearly inhibits its action.” (Foundation, at p. 1371.)  Because Senate Bill No. 1107 expressly conflicts with a primary mandate of the Act, the ban on public funding of election campaigns, it is invalid.”

So, what guidance does this appellate court case give us? I think there are several important take-aways for me.

First, just because a bill simply states that the Legislature finds or declares that a bill furthers the purposes of a voter-approved act does not mean it will be accepted by a reviewing court. (And, as I have opined before, this simple statement should be expanded to include a substantive explanation for why the Legislature is making such a declaration.)

Second, legislative findings and declarations in support of a bill can be readily ignored by a reviewing court. In this case, SB 1107 had 13 different legislative statements to justify the bill’s amendment to the voter-approved measure. None of them were accepted by the appellate court.


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