Author: Timothy Sandefur
Last Friday, Santa Rosa Superior Court Judge Mark Tansil struck down a city ordinance that required landowners to give up their right to vote as a condition for obtaining a building permit. Here’s the decision.
“Patently, Ordinance 3902 is not a municipal measure that merely streamlines or improves a free election,” wrote Judge Tansil.
On its face, it is a legislative effort to induce certain property owners to cast a vote in favor of the government’s position on the subject of special taxation; it resembles the Hobson’s choice: “just take or leave it”; it unfairly tampers with the elective process. The standard of review for such a severe impairment of voting rights, which unequally harms local voters, is strict scrutiny. While the City may have demonstrated a rational basis for the ordinance, it has not shown that the enactment is supported by a compelling state interest and that it has chosen the least restrictive means of achieving such an interest.
Sadly, the Santa Rosa decision is only one example of the many ways local and state governments use the permit process as a method of forcing citizens to give up their constitutional rights—money, land, or voting rights. As I explained in Liberty magazine last year, the permit system was devised to protect the public from dangerous construction or to prevent pollution or other public harms, but it’s now seen by many officials as an opportunity for extortion.
Sadly, in a similar case in Carlsbad, California, the Ninth Circuit recently ruled against our clients, Craig and Robin Griswold, on a procedural technicality. But the Santa Rosa decision is a major victory for the rights of California’s property owners—and a warning to cities that abuse the permitting process: yes, the Constitution does apply to you, too!