Chief justice takes on initiative process

Restraints making state ‘dysfunctional,’ George remarks


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 straitjacket.”

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 process?”

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 process.

“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.