Prop 1A Ballot Language Lawsuit

The California State Legislature recently lost an appeal in the California Court of Appeal regarding the ballot language used for Prop 1A, the November 2008 proposition that provided a down payment for the high speed rail project.

Despite the State losing the lawsuit, there is no actual impact on the high speed rail project. The court did not look at the language of the ballot in issuing its ruling. Rather, it only looked at whether the Legislature violated the law when it demanded the Secretary of State use a particular ballot title and summary.

California law requires the Attorney General to draft an impartial title and summary to ballot propositions. The Superior Court ruled in 2008 that the Legislature had violated the law by requiring the Secretary of State to use a specific ballot title and description. The Appellate Court agreed with the Superior Court. “Simply stated, the Legislature cannot dictate the ballot label, title and official summary for a statewide measure unless the Legislature obtains approval of the electorate to do so prior to placement of the measure on the ballot.”

This is an important decision. Apparently, the Legislature has required the Secretary of State to use specific language a number of times over the past ten years, including with prop 1A. The ruling should put an end to that practice for now. The Legislature likely will ask the California Supreme Court to hear and overturn the earlier decisions.

Even if the California Supreme Court agrees with the District Court and Court of Appeals, the only real effects of the suit will occur on future ballots. For example, Gov. Brown has asked the Legislature to place a tax extension proposition on the ballot for the next statewide election in June. The Legislature will not be able to write the text of the ballot. That job belongs to the California Attorney General, Kamala Harris.

Bottom line:

  • The Legislature violated the law when it required the Secretary of State to use specific ballot language
  • There is no effect upon Prop 1A, the Rail Authority, or its high speed rail project.
  • The Court of Appeals did not rule on whether the title, summary, or other descriptions for prop 1A were false or misleading.

Note: Information about the disposition of an appeal, including a copy of the opinion, is available on the Courts of Appeals web site. I have embedded the opinion below.

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