Why the California Legislature Can’t Simply Repeal the Judicially Invalidated Proposition 187


In the space below, I analyze a pending effort by California lawmakers to cleanse the California statute books of (what are to my mind) some mean-spirited provisions concerning the treatment of undocumented immigrants in the State. While the goals of this legislative endeavor are understandable, the attempt reflects fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the legislature’s authority, and the essence of judicial review (i.e., the power of courts to declare enactments unconstitutional.)

How This Episode Has Arisen—Background on Proposition 187

The story really begins almost 20 years ago in November 1994, when California voters adopted Proposition 187, a statewide initiative statute that amended California’s Education, Government, Penal, and Welfare and Institutions Codes. The measure sought to make immigrants unlawfully present in California ineligible for various public health, public social, and public education services. The proposition also required state and local agencies to investigate whether arrested persons in the State were in the country unlawfully, and report any suspected immigration violations to the state Attorney General and federal immigration authorities. In some respects, Proposition 187 was the intellectual forerunner of Arizona’s SB 1070, the 2010 law regulating unlawful immigrants that received national attention and that was struck down (but only in part) by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 in Arizona v. United States.

Shortly after Proposition 187’s passage, the provisions described above were challenged in a lawsuit and a few years later blocked by federal district judge Mariana Pfaelzer, who reasoned that the contested provisions conflicted with federal immigration law and policy, and were thus rendered unconstitutional by the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution (which makes federal law “supreme”). California Governor Pete Wilson appealed the district court ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, but in 1999 Wilson’s replacement, Governor Gray Davis, withdrew the appeal and sent the legal dispute to mediation. The result has been that Judge Pfaelzer’s order blocking Proposition 187’s enforcement has remained in effect ever since.

The Recent Legislative Effort and the Essential Problem With It

Now enters a group of well-intentioned California legislators, who this month are introducing legislation, SB 396, that seeks to remove from the California statute books the provisions of Proposition 187 that were held unconstitutional by Judge Pfaelzer. As California Senator Kevin DeLeon—one of the bill’s backers—put it in his “fact sheet”: “[A]fter 20 years, it is fitting that California expressly acknowledge the harm caused to Californians through passage of the discriminatory and xenophobic Proposition 187 by removing its stain from the state’s statutes.” SB 396, styled as a measure that will become law if passed by a simple majority of both houses of the California legislature and signed by the Governor, attempts to repeal those portions of the State’s Education, Government, Penal, and Welfare and Institutions Codes into which the now-invalidated portions of Proposition 187 are lodged.

From one angle, this legislative effort seems quite sensible. Why shouldn’t California’s statute books reflect the current state of things, and be purged of provisions that are not enforceable and that send demeaning messages to members of our community? As to the goals of this legislative effort—in the words of Seinfeld character Elaine Benes referring to another woman’s efforts to free herself from the George Costanza character—“more sympathetic . . . I could not be.” But the problem with SB 396 is that the California Constitution prohibits the state legislature from repealing any part of a voter-enacted initiative unless the measure explicitly empowers the legislature to do so, or unless the voters themselves approve of the repeal. Initiative measures, even those that take the form of statutes rather than state constitutional amendments, occupy a space in the state constitutional hierarchy above ordinary enactments by the legislature. In other words, a statutory initiative such as Proposition 187, like a state constitutional amendment, lies outside the control of the legislature to undo or modify. And this makes sense, if the initiative device is itself supposed to be a check on—and a response to dysfunction within—the state legislature. Importantly, Proposition 187, by its terms, does not authorize the legislature to undertake repeal by ordinary legislation without voter approval.

What’s Wrong With Repealing Dead Letters?

But what about the fact that the parts of Proposition 187 at issue here have been declared unconstitutional by a federal judge? Shouldn’t that fact change things? As Senator DeLeon’s Chief of Staff has been quoted as saying: “These code sections are unenforceable. . . . Essentially, [SB 396 is] ‘code cleaning.’” (The same press account that included this quote also quoted the Chief of Staff as saying that the California Legislative Counsel has opined that SB 396 could be implemented as ordinary legislation. If such an opinion were rendered, I would like to know how the Legislative Counsel thinks the California Constitution permits this.)

While initially appealing, the “code-cleaning-on-account-of-unenforceability” view reflects a fundamental misconception of judicial review and what it means when a court “invalidates” or “strikes down” an enactment. A judicial declaration that a statute is unconstitutional (accompanied by an injunction against the statute’s enforcement) is in reality simply a statement that that court—and all courts that are bound by that court—will refuse to allow implementation of the statute as of that time. When a statute is struck down, it is not literally stricken from the statute books; it is simply held unenforceable for the time being—until and unless something changes. If something does change to undo the court’s invalidation, then the statute can be enforced without having to be reenacted, since it remained on the statute books all along. (Indeed, SB 396 would not be needed except for the fact that Proposition 187 remains on the statute books.)

Well, what might change after a court invalidates a statute to bring it back to life? For one thing, a higher court could reverse the ruling that invalidates the statute. Certainly no one would argue that the California legislature could repeal Proposition 187 during the time it was pending on appeal to the Ninth Circuit, because we all know that many district court rulings are short-lived. But now that the appeal is dead, isn’t Judge Pfaelzer’s opinion permanent? Not quite. Intervening developments in the law—e.g., new Supreme Court cases handed down—could enable parties to seek the “reopening” of a case and get relief from a court order that no longer reflects the current legal or factual landscape. Indeed, although the political climate in California would likely prevent elected officials from trying to resurrect Proposition 187 anytime soon, there are parts of the Supreme Court opinion in Arizona v. United States that upheld some of Arizona’s SB 1070 and that arguably call into question some of Judge Pfaelzer’s analysis concerning the involvement of local law enforcement officials in policing immigration violations.

Would Supreme Court Invalidation of Proposition 187 Have Changed Anything?

Suppose Judge Pfaelzer’s ruling had been appealed to, and affirmed by, the Supreme Court. Would the analysis be different then? Not really. Even a Supreme Court ruling invalidating a statute does no more than indicate a current unwillingness by a majority of the Justices to permit enforcement, but that too could change. Some of the most important (and righteous) decisions by the Supreme Court have involved overruling past Supreme Court decisions that we now think were wrongly decided, so we know that no ruling by the Supreme Court is truly permanent. While it is rare for the Court to overrule a past decision that had recognized an individual right or limited state power—it is more common, as in Brown v. Board of Education, to overrule a past ruling that had rejected, rather than embraced, limits on state power—there is nothing that prevents the Court from undoing past rulings that impose limits on government. For example, if the Justices were to overrule Roe. v. Wade and declare no constitutional protection for abortion rights, then states that had abortion regulations on the books that were adopted prior to Roe could begin to enforce those regulations without the need to reenact anything. To be sure, when a state chooses not to enforce a law for a long period of time, the doctrine of “desuetude” may prevent the state from attempting to revive the statute, but if the reason for non-enforcement was a now-considered-erroneous judicial injunction, then enforcement could resume after the constitutional error has been corrected.

Perhaps an easy way to see that SB 396 is legally problematic even though Proposition 187 is currently enjoined is to ask whether the California legislature could repeal Proposition 187 without a majority vote of both houses of the state legislature. Suppose SB 396 backers in the California Senate took the position that because Proposition 187 has been invalidated, they can repeal it from the books without involving the State Assembly. Everyone would readily see that this course of action would be illegitimate, because the California Constitution requires all laws to have bicameralism—and this requirement is independent of the merits of Proposition 187’s unconstitutionality. But the requirement of bicameralism is no more important and no more independent than the requirement that the legislature seek the people’s approval before repealing an initiative. If “code cleaning” cannot excuse ignoring the former, neither can it excuse ignoring the latter; failing to involve the Assembly is no different for these purposes than failing to involve the people.

None of this means there is no role for the California legislature to play in bringing about the formal repeal of Proposition 187. As I have been noting, the California Constitution does permit legislative repeal of initiatives, but only with approval of the voters. SB 396 could and should be restyled as a measure that is submitted to the voters, so that all Californians can reconsider whether Proposition 187 represents the will of the people. That is the proper and lawful way to lay Proposition 187 to rest.