Calif. chief justice's 'unusual' speech draws applause

Chris Rizo Oct. 13, 2009, 4:00pm

Ronald George

Dan Schnur

Susan Estrich

Mary-Beth Moylan

LOS ANGELES (Legal Newsline)-California Chief Justice Ronald George's comments this weekend critical of the state's initiative process have some court observers clapping their hands.

In a speech Saturday in Cambridge, Mass., George said California's use of referendums to change state laws has "rendered our state government dysfunctional."

Additionally, he said the referendum process has become a burden for the courts and has given special interests too much influence in the Golden State.

"The court over which I preside frequently is called upon to resolve legal challenges to voter initiatives," George said in his speech to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. "Needless to say, we incur the displeasure of the voting public when, in the course of performing our constitutional duties as judges, we are compelled to invalidate such a measure."

The referendum process, he also said, has limited how elected officials may raise and spend state revenues.

"California's lawmakers, and the state itself, have been placed in a fiscal straitjacket by a steep two-thirds-vote requirement -- imposed at the ballot box -- for raising taxes," he said. "I am concerned we shall continue on a course of dysfunctional state government characterized by a lack of accountability on the part of our office holders as well as the voting public."

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said Tuesday it is unusual for a sitting judge, especially a state Supreme Court justice, to make such remarks. George used the occasion of his induction Saturday into the prestigious academy to voice his objections to the ballot measure process.

"It is a mark of how widespread public dissatisfaction is with state government -- that the chief justice would weigh in on this issue," Schnur told Legal Newsline.

A Field Poll released this week indicates that public opinion of the California Legislature is at a record low, with 78 percent of respondents disapproving while just 13 percent approved of state lawmakers' work.

University of Southern California legal and political analyst Susan Estrich said it is "fairly unusual" for sitting judges to speak out on such an issue, adding that George's comments are "totally appropriate" because he was not commenting on the merits of a particular case.

Estrich said she agrees with George's assessment.

"What was intended, I think, as a safeguard on the democratic process has become a substitute for the legislative process," said Estrich, a partner at the Los Angeles law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges, LLP.

Estrich added that "it's amazing" there are not more legal "mistakes" woven into ballot measures than there are.

"Voters shouldn't be legislators," she said.

George was appointed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in 1991. He has been publicly critical of a 2008 state ballot measure, Proposition 8, that ended same-sex marriage in California.

His court in May overturned state law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

In November, voters approved Proposition 8, amending the state constitution to override the high court's ruling in Strauss v. Horton. In the same election, voters approved restrictions on caging fowl.

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

Professor Mary-Beth Moylan, director of Global Lawyering Skills at Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, said she was not surprised by the chief justice's comments, particularly as they relate to the state budget process.

"The impact that the hand-tying initiatives have had on the structure of government in California is extraordinary and the fact that leaders of all branches of government are saying so is a good sign," Moylan said.

While some may argue that because many initiative statutes are challenged before the state Supreme Court, George's comments may have been out-of-line, Moylan said she is not so sure since his comments were not targeted to any particular initiative.

"Yes, it is somewhat unusual for sitting justices to make statements about the political process, but the budgetary situation in our state government right now creates unusual circumstances," she said.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at

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