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Prop. 8 ruling: State officials can't veto voter-approved measures

November 17, 2011 | 10:43 am

Proposition 8 rally

State officials do not have the right to veto a voter-approved initiative, the California Supreme Court said in its ruling Thursday that recognized the right of Proposition 8 backers to defend the state's gay marriage ban in court.   

“Neither the governor, the attorney general, nor any other executive or legislative official has the authority to veto or invalidate an initiative measure that has been approved by the voters,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakueye wrote for the court.

She said that doing so “would exalt form over substance” and permit public officials who opposed an initiative to invalidate a measure simply by refusing to defend it.

FULL COVERAGE: Proposition 8

"In a postelection challenge to a voter-approved initiative measure, the official proponents of the initiative are authorized under California law to appear and assert the state’s interest in the initiative’s validity and to appeal a judgment invalidating the measure when the public officials who ordinarily defend the measure or appeal such a judgment decline to do so," the chief justice wrote.

The California Supreme Court voted unanimously that the sponsors of Proposition 8 and other ballot measures are entitled to defend them in court when the state refuses to do so, a ruling likely to spur federal courts to decide the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans.

The state high court’s decision, a defeat for gay rights groups, sets the stage for a federal court action -- which could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- that would affect same-sex marriage bans outside California.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering an appeal of a trial judge’s ruling that overturned Proposition 8, had asked the California justices to clarify whether state law gives initiative sponsors standing, or legal authority, to defend their measures against legal challenges.

State officials are entitled to champion ballot measures in court, but the governor and the attorney general have refused to defend  Proposition 8.

The ruling represents a strong endorsement of the right of initiative sponsors to represent the state when elected officials decline to defend ballot measures.

“When an initiative is challenged in court, the integrity and effectiveness of the judicial process requires that a competent and spirited defense be presented,” Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote in a separate concurring opinion.

“If public officials refuse to provide that defense, the ability of the initiative proponents to intervene in the pending litigation, and to appeal an adverse judgment … is 'essential,'” she wrote.

A contrary holding would allow state officials "to effectively annul voter-approved initiatives simply by declining to defend them,” Kennard concluded.

The court stressed that its decision was not aimed at questions of gay rights, but merely the power of the initiative process.

Although the 9th Circuit is not bound by Thursday’s ruling, the decision makes it less likely that the appeals court would decide Proposition 8’s future on narrow, standing grounds.


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Photo: Scott Hutton joins a rally in West Hollywood on Aug. 4, 2010, celebrating a federal court's ruling that temporarily struck down Proposition 8. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times