Why the California State Supreme Court’s Decision Is A Good Thing
November 17th, 2011
Of course in my heart I wanted today’s ruling by the California Supreme Court to go differently than it did. But in my head I had little doubt about the outcome. In ruling that Prop 8 proponents have legal standing to defend their handiwork in court, the court established a precedent that upholds the spirit of California’s system of initiative and referendum. It also, if taken to what I believe should be its logical conclusion, can become a starting point for reforming some of the worst abuses of California’s initiative process by holding proposition supporters accountable for the propositions they’ve foisted on the state.
California’s initiative and referendum was initially implemented as part of a broader political reform movement intended to give citizens the ability to make the laws that their elected officials refused to do. In theory, that sounds like a very good idea, I think most of us can agree that its practice in California has been a disaster. The patchwork of accreted propositions over the decades have made the state effectively ungovernable, while the initiative process itself has been hijacked by powerful special interest groups who pump multiple millions of dollars into the campaigns to get their favorite measures approved. Prop 8 alone came with a price tag of more than $83 million. With that kind of money, the citizen-legislator that the initiative and referendum system was supposed to empower hardly matters any more. The obscene sums spent on various propositions by powerful interest groups makes the whole idea of harnessing the collective wisdom of citizen-legislators, well, sad. Look at what all that money got us: a discriminatory law written into California’s Constitution in a process that leveraged prejudices and fear to win votes.
It’s no wonder then that when Americans For Equal Rights sued to overturn Prop 8 on constitutional grounds, the state stepped aside and said they wouldn’t defend it. And why should they? Prop 8 wasn’t Sacramento’s doing. It was the product of anti-gay activists who put the proposition on the ballot and spent millions on a campaign pitting Californians against fellow Californians. Why should the state defend Prop 8 supporter’s pet cause?
In fact, why should the state defend anything they didn’t enact in the first place? And furthermore, in the spirit of citizen initiative and referendum, why would anyone want the state to defend something they had no hand in creating — whether it’s Prop 8 or any other proposition that had passed without the state’s support? The California court examined those questions and observed, “Because of their special relationship to the initiative measure, the official proponents of the measure are the most obvious and logical private individuals to ably and vigorously defend the validity of the challenged measure…”
I think they’re on to something, and the Prop 8 case is a great example. When the state stepped aside and said they wouldn’t defend Prop 8, Federal District Judge Vaughn Walker let Prop 8’s supporters defend the law in his court. And look what we got: a mess so embarrassing that the defendants themselves have been fighting hard to keep the trial’s videotapes out of public view. Prop 8 supporters won their electoral campaign by playing on the worse prejudices against LGBT people, only to have to try to deny in court that prejudice played any role in the campaign. That didn’t work. They tried to claim that social science argued against same-sex marriage. That effort completely fell apart. After Prop 8 was ruled unconstitutional, Prop 8 supporters tried to claim that because Judge Walker was gay, his ruling should be overturned. That didn’t work either.
If you ask me, holding Prop 8 supporters accountable for their proposition has been nothing but a big plus for our side. Remember, these are the guys who are “the most obvious and logical private individuals to ably and vigorously defend” Prop 8. Don’t you just love it?
So if I had a complaint against the California State Supreme Court ruling, it would be that it doesn’t go far enough. I think state officials should be prohibited from defending any proposition placed on the ballot via citizen initiative. That burden should be borne by those who campaigned for the proposition’s passage. If they think it’s just a great idea during the campaign, they also ought to be able to explain why it’s a great law in court. And if they can amass the millions of dollars it took to win passage of their pet proposition, then they can stick around after the election to defend the law — and to raise the money for the legal bills — if it lands in court.
This could open the door to some substantive reform in California’s initiative and referendum process. If a campaign knew that they may be called upon to defend their handiwork in court, maybe they’d think twice about their efforts. Maybe they would more carefully consider the ramifications of their proposals before election day if they knew they’d have to defend them after election day. Maybe they would think twice about exploiting irrational fears and prejudices against a minority if they knew they’d have to explain how their law wasn’t irrationally fear-based and prejudiced in court. And yes, maybe monkeys might fly out of my butt. But holding people accountable for their actions has never been a bad thing. It has worked pretty well so far with Prop 8.