Chief justice takes on initiative process
Saturday, October 10, 2009 at 2 a.m.
Chief Justice Ronald George, in surprisingly blunt remarks to be
delivered in a speech today, warns that California's cherished
initiative process has made state government “dysfunctional” and
says voters may have to consider reforming the process.
The remarks are set to be delivered in Cambridge, Mass., where
he'll be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Since becoming head of the state's high court more than a decade
ago, George generally has won praise for his leadership of the
branch. He's seen as personable, with a deft touch for working with
legislatures and governors.
Although a frequent speaker around the state, George rarely
ventures outside the themes of the importance of an independent
judiciary and the challenges facing modern court systems.
The remarks he's to deliver today are in many ways a notable
departure from that.
Titled “The Perils of Direct Democracy: The California
Experience”, the speech touches on themes other critics of the
initiative process have sounded recently.
He says it's too easy for the state constitution to be amended.
He ruefully notes Proposition 8 — which banned same-sex marriages
that George's court had approved in a historic court decision months
earlier — passed on the same ballot as a measure regulating how
chickens are confined.
“Chickens,” he says, “gained valuable rights in California
on the same day that gay men and lesbians lost them.” He laments
that well-funded special interest groups dominate the process and
can easily qualify measures by paying signature gatherers. In
California, signatures equivalent to 8 percent of voters in the last
gubernatorial election are enough to get something on the ballot.
Moreover, George says many of the initiatives have limited how
state and local officials can raise and spend money. The requirement
calling for a two-thirds vote requirement for raising taxes have
helped place the state in what George calls a “fiscal
Coupled with a lack of political will to cut spending or raise
taxes, the system has led to severe cuts in state services,
including the courts, George says.
While some are calling for a state constitutional convention,
George poses the question of whether the process is a positive force
or has become the “tool” of special interests and “an
impediment to the effective functioning of a true democratic
He doesn't answer the question, but recalls Benjamin Franklin's
warning that the republican-style government can be lost. He says
the state may need to look at “some fundamental reform” of the
“Otherwise, I am concerned, we shall continue on a course of
dysfunctional state government, characterized by a lack of
accountability on the part of our officeholders as well as the
voting public,” he says.