Calif. top justice slams state referendum process

(AP)  Oct 10, 2009

SACRAMENTO, Calif. The chief justice of the California Supreme Court criticized the state's reliance on the referendum process Saturday, saying it has "rendered our state government dysfunctional."

The widespread use of referendums to change state laws and constitutions hampers legislators, gives special interests too much power and burdens the judicial branch, Chief Justice Ronald M. George said in a speech delivered in Cambridge, Mass.

"The court over which I preside frequently is called upon to resolve legal challenges to voter initiatives," George said. "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 justice's comments were released early but officials with George later confirmed he followed the prepared remarks in delivering the speech.

George said the ballot box system places California's lawmakers in a "fiscal straitjacket" that prevents them from effectively solving the state's financial crisis. The result, George said, is growing debt.

"These constraints upon elected officials when combined with a lack of political will on the part of some to curb spending and on the part of others to raise taxes often make a third alternative, borrowing, the most attractive option at least until the bankers say 'no,'" George said.

The speech to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences was titled "The Perils of Direct Democracy: The California Experience."