gavel.jpgCalifornia Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told a San Francisco audience today that ruling on challenges to voter initiatives is both “a monumental task” and one of the most important jobs of her court.

“We realize it’s direct democracy,” Cantil-Sakauye said at a noon talk at the Public Policy Institute of California.

“We endeavor to effectuate the people’s will and at the same time uphold the (California) Constitution,” she said.

Cantil-Sakauye, who took office as state Supreme Court chief justice in 2011, was asked by institute President Mark Baldassare to comment on the initiative process during a conversation about the California court system.

The procedure of enacting laws or state constitutional amendments through ballot measures was added to the California Constitution in 1911 as a progressive reform.

The chief justice noted that one result of the process is that the state Constitution has been amended far more often than the U.S. Constitution and is a complex document.

“The U.S. Constitution has been amended 17 times, not including the (ten amendments of) the Bill of Rights since 1789. The California Constitution has been amended 500-plus times since 1879,” she said.

“There were 11 initiatives on the ballot in November, of which five passed, and there were 99 in the past 10 years, of which 39 passed,” she continued.

Not all initiatives are challenged in lawsuits, but most of those that are contested end up before the state Supreme Court sooner or later.

“It’s almost as if in the initiative process, the strategic plan is to get to the Supreme Court,” Cantil-Sakauye commented.

Asked to give some examples of initiative cases that came before the courts, Cantil Sakauye mentioned death penalty procedures, the state’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage, the Proposition 13 limit on property taxes, the use of gill nets, and reapportionment, among others.

In death penalty cases, the state high court upheld a 1978 initiative reinstating capital punishment in California, but clarified how that law should be implemented in a series of rulings on inmates’ appeals.

On same-sex marriage, the court ruled by a 4-3 vote in 2008 that the California Constitution provided a right to gay and lesbian weddings. A year later, the court by a 6-1 vote affirmed the right of voters to amend the Constitution through an initiative, Proposition 8, to ban such marriages, but ruled that 18,000 previously performed marriages should remain valid.

The issues in initiatives tend to be “very complicated and emotional” because they otherwise probably wouldn’t have been the subject of a ballot measure, Cantil-Sakauye said.

“We are well aware that we are seven justices looking at something emotionally charged,” the chief justice said, but “we look at seeking to uphold the people’s will while adhering to constitutional principles.”

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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