California Chief Justice Ronald M. George, in a speech before the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences, says the ease by which Californians can make new
laws at the ballot box has "rendered our state government
George, who spoke Saturday in Cambridge, Mass., used the occasion of his
induction into the academy to criticize the initiative process and call for
reform. An advance copy of the speech was released by a Supreme Court
George, a moderate Republican, has been critical of the initiative process in
the past, but his remarks to the national group signaled a sense of urgency
and willingness to push for reforms.
George noted that in November, voters passed initiatives to regulate the
confinement of fowl in coops and passed Proposition 8, which overturned part
of a California Supreme Court ruling that gave gays and lesbians the right to
"Chickens gained valuable rights in California on the same day that gay
men and lesbians lost them," George said.
George was the swing vote in the historic May 2008 decision to end a ban on
same-sex marriage. Legal scholars said the 4-3 ruling he wrote would define
his legacy. The George court is considered moderately conservative and, until
the marriage ruling, cautious. The court has only one Democratic appointee.
After voters approved Proposition 8, it was challenged in court. George again
wrote the majority opinion, this time upholding the initiative that overturned
a critical part of the court's ruling against a novel legal challenge. The 6-1
decision said Proposition 8 was a limited constitutional amendment rather than
a more sweeping revision that required legislative involvement.
George's opinion read in parts as a lament. He said the court's hands were
tied by precedent and California laws that gave voters wide freedom to amend
the state Constitution. At the time, opponents of same-sex marriage were
threatening to oust justices at the ballot if they voted to overturn
"The court over which I preside frequently is called upon to resolve
legal challenges to voter initiatives," George said in his speech.
"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."
Much of the state Constitution and many state laws "have been brought
about not by legislative fact-gathering and deliberation but rather by the
approval of voter initiative measures, often funded by special
interests," George said.
"These interests are allowed under the law to pay a bounty to
signature-gatherers for each signer. Frequent amendments -- coupled with the
implicit threat of more in the future -- have rendered our state government
dysfunctional, at least in times of severe economic decline."
George noted that voter initiatives have restricted the taxing power of the
Legislature, leaving state revenues dependent on a "boom or bust economic
"The consequences this year have been devastating to programs that, for
example, provide food to poor children and healthcare for the elderly
disabled," he said.
Unless Californians reform the initiative system, "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," George said.