Victory as California supreme court rules that CEQA does not apply to voter initiatives

August 08, 2014 | By TONY FRANCOIS

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court handed down a win for citizen democracy in California, by ruling that local voter initiatives are not subject to review under the California Environmental Quality Act, even when they are adopted directly by a city council or county board of supervisors, as the law allows, rather than being submitted to the electorate for approval.

The case is Tuolumne Jobs and Small Business Alliance, and involves a local initiative submitted by voters in the city of Sonora, California, which adopted a zoning plan which would allow for the expansion of a local Wal-Mart.  The proponents of the initiative submitted it to the city council, which then had the obligation to either adopt the initiative directly, or submit it to the electorate for decision.  The city council adopted the initiative, and a group of opponents sued, claiming that the city could only directly adopt an initiative if it complied with CEQA’s complex and lengthy process of environmental review.

The trial court rejected this argument, but the court of appeal agreed with it, and held that a city council could not directly adopt a voter initiative without first complying with CEQA.  But the California Supreme Court accepted the case and agreed with the trial court.  The court’s main line of reasoning is that there is no way to carry out a CEQA analysis within the 40 days that a city has to act on a voter initiative, and so the legislature cannot have intended that it be done.

The Court also made an important public policy observation which is based on Pacific Legal Foundation’s amicus brief in the case.  The court of appeal had objected to city council’s directly adopting voter initiatives on the grounds that this seemed anti-democratic.  In the court of appeal’s view, initiative should always be voted on by the full electorate.  But PLF argued to the state high court that this failed to recognize the power of referendum as a counter-balance to the initiative.  If those opposing an initiative are unhappy that a city council directly adopts it, they can always seek to referend that decision.  So, whether a city council acts directly on an initiative or not, the voters always have the last word.  We were happy to see the supreme court adopt this argument in support of its statutory interpretation.