Follow-Up on California’s Legislative Effort to Repeal Proposition 187


In my last column, I began analyzing SB 396, a laudable but legally questionable effort by the California legislature to repeal, by ordinary legislation, provisions of Proposition 187, a 1994 voter-enacted measure that imposed harsh restrictions on unlawful immigrants in the State, restrictions that have since been blocked indefinitely by a federal district court judge. As I explained, the main problem with the repeal effort is Article II, section 10(c) of California Constitution. This provision, designed to maintain the integrity of the initiative device, prevents the legislature from repealing any voter-enacted measure unless the repeal measure is itself “approved by the electors” (i.e., the voters).

The Legal Defense of SB 396 and How That Defense Overreads the Import of a Judicial Block on Enforcement

A few days after my column was posted, the State Assembly Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on the proposed legislation. This hearing and the report it generated give a glimpse of the opinion offered by the State Legislative Counsel—an opinion legislators appear to be relying on—setting forth the view that SB 396 is lawful and that Proposition 187 can be repealed by simple legislation. Here is the passage of the Committee Report that lays out the Legislative Counsel’s legal defense of the bill:

Because [Proposition 187 was] enacted by initiative, the question arises whether the Legislature may act to strike these provisions from the codes. The California Constitution provides that the Legislature may amend or repeal a statutory initiative ‘by another statute that becomes effective only when approved by the electors. . . .’ (Cal. Const., art II, § 10, subd.(c).) While it may be argued that this bill proposes an improper ‘repeal,’ the better view would appear to be reflected in an opinion by Legislative Counsel concluding that the Legislature is within its powers to delete statutes that have been abrogated by the courts. As Counsel notes, the evident intent of the subdivision (c) is to ‘protect the people’s initiative powers by precluding the Legislature from undoing what the people have done, without the electorate’s consent.’ . . . Accordingly a subsequent statute will ‘amend’ a statutory initiative within the meaning of subdivision (c) only if it changes the scope or effect of that initiative by adding or taking away from it. . . . Because the provisions that would be deleted by SB 396 have previously been held to be unenforceable, it seems reasonable to conclude that this bill would not make a substantive change in the law as prohibited by subdivision (c), and therefore would not unconstitutionally change the scope or effect of Proposition 187.

In other words, a legislative measure that does not “change the scope or effect” of a previously enacted initiative cannot be said to amend or repeal the initiative, and does not require voter approval. While creative, this argument is not persuasive. Even assuming that the “scope or effect” standard is the right one to apply, SB 396 fails the test. For starters, as I pointed out at length in my earlier column, a law that is blocked by a court but that remains on the code books has significant potential effect down the road, insofar as circumstances could change to remove the judicial block. Courts can revisit their prior rulings, higher courts can change the legal landscape against which lower courts make decisions (as the Supreme Court in fact did in the immigration regulation setting in 2012 in Arizona v. United States), parties can seek to reopen cases, etc. All of these possibilities exist in the context of Proposition 187. Indeed, because the district judge who struck down parts of Proposition 187 did so in part because of congressional laws on the books, there is yet another possible change that could trigger revisiting the judicial block on enforcement—subsequent congressional action. For all these reasons, we cannot say that Proposition 187’s operative provisions that remain on the books lack effect; at most, we can say that the present effects are blunted, and that the future effects are hard to gauge but potentially significant.

How the Defense of SB 396 (Selectively) Ignores the Expressive Effects of a Law

But there is an even more fundamental flaw in the Legislative Counsel’s position; the Legislative Counsel seems not to recognize that a law whose operative provisions are being blocked continues to have an expressive effect, insofar as a state’s laws, as written, send a message to the world about the state’s values. Indeed, it is that expressive effect—of having the mean-spirited language of Proposition 187 still on the books—to which SB 396 is itself a response; repealing the text is a good idea primarily because leaving the text intact continues to send a message. But the people who voted for Proposition 187 may have wanted to accomplish the harsh message that Proposition 187 conveys, irrespective of whether the operative provisions of the measure could be enforced.

Even if 187’s message is odious, there is nothing unconstitutional about a state having that message codified in its books, which is why the District Court Judge did not order that Proposition 187 be stricken from the code books, only that its provisions not be enforced. (Some kinds of messages, regarding race or religion, may themselves be unconstitutional, but messages about immigration benefits do not violate the federal Constitution in the same way.) Voters of a state have authority to convey even unkind and unwise messages in the initiatives they enact, and the California Constitution does not seem to give the legislature the power to override those messages. Indeed, the legislature cannot have it both ways, saying that the message sent by Proposition 187’s continued presence on the books creates problems, but then denying that the message has any “effect.”

Perhaps an example from a different constitutional area will help drive the point home. Imagine the California voters were to pass an initiative that says: “Catholic doctrine is religious truth, and that all other religions are false.” The measure, by its terms, does not go on to tell anybody to do or refrain from doing anything—it is a purely expressive initiative. Putting aside whether such a measure violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution and what a court might do about that, no one could plausibly argue that that the legislature could repeal and remove this measure from the code books without popular approval the day after it was enacted on the ground that the initiative, and thus its legislative repeal, is purely expressive and has no scope or effect in the real world.

Changes in Legislative Text, Even Those That Don’t Seem to Change the Real World, Must Go Through a Prescribed Process

The codified text of a statute (or state constitution) matters, and legislatures are given authority to amend that text, but only if they go through the required legislative procedures. As I argued in my last column, the requirement of popular approval may be analogized to the requirement of bicameralism; just as one house of the state legislature may not repeal text—whether or not the repeal changes the present-day operative effect of that text—without the other house, neither may the two houses accomplish repeal of initiatives or state constitutional provisions without involving the people.

We can see this even more clearly using yet another hypothetical, this one an attempt by the California Legislature to change the language of the state constitution rather than a statute adopted by the voters. As with initiative statutes, the California lawmakers can, under the terms of the California Constitution, propose changes in constitutional text, but such changes require voter approval to go into effect. Suppose the California Supreme Court (the ultimate interpreter of State law) were to rule that search and seizure protections under the California Constitution do not extend to automobiles. The legislature could not, without getting the required popular consent for all constitutional amendments, tweak the text of the California Constitution to add words making explicit that car searches aren’t covered, simply because (under the prevailing judicial decisions at the time) this amendment wouldn’t change the real-world “scope or effect” of the provision in question.

The Effort to Repeal Proposition 187 Should Proceed, but Should Include Popular Approval

None of this is to say the legislature should abandon the efforts to repeal Proposition 187. Instead, it is to say simply that the legislature should act to repeal the Proposition, but that the repeal should take effect only when the voters approve it. And having the voters remove the hateful Proposition 187 themselves is the best solution for expressive reasons anyway. If State Senator Kevin De Leon is correct, as I believe he is, that erasing the language of Proposition 187 would be powerfully symbolic, think of how much more powerful it would be if the very electorate that passed Proposition 187 now wants to make clear that this measure no longer represents the views or values of the State.

And I think popular approval would be easily forthcoming. The State and its attitudes about immigration and ethnicity have evolved a great deal in the past two decades. Since the measure could be put to the voters without having to assemble signatures, no signature-gathering money would need to be expended. Indeed, because I can’t imagine any organized opposition to a measure proposing repeal, I don’t see the need for any expensive campaign to obtain enactment.

Having the voters undo their own misguided handiwork would be poetic, practical and (legally) proper. And, importantly, it would avoid opening up the legislature to the charge that it is riding roughshod over the will of the people and the initiative process.