THE California State Constitution is one of the oldest state constitutions still in use today. It’s 130 year history has been defined by revision, amendment, and reform, dating back to it’s 1879 ratification. The constitution’s long life, coupled with numerous partial-reform efforts, has resulted in what is today the world’s third longest constitution. With 512 amendments, the Constitution of California is eight times the length of the U.S. Constitution and has been criticized as “a perfect example of what a constitution ought not to be”1 and derided for being “more about legal technicalities than principles; an embarrassment for an otherwise cutting-edge state”.2
IN 1848 the United States acquired California from Mexico under the terms and conditions of the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo. When a gold discovery at Sutter’s Mill (near San Francisco) the following year sparked the famous California Gold Rush, the US Congress acted swiftly to grant statehood. Lacking an effective territorial administration for its rapidly growing population, California’s leaders were pressed to draft a workable constitution. With the backing of Brigadier General Bennett Riley, California’s military governor, 48 delegates convened a Constitutional Convention in Monterey. After final ratification, the delegates submitted the constitution to Congress and on Sunday, September 9, 1850, California was admitted to the Union as the 31st State.
Heavily based on other state constitutions, the 1848 California Constitution proved inadequate to meet the long-term needs of the flourishing new state.3 Political leaders tried to amend the document via constitutional convention and the amendment process, however, during the 30 years which followed statehood, all three constitutional convention ballot proposals failed to win voter support and, of the many constitutional amendments proposed, only three became law. Finally, in 1877 the state legislature again submitted the question of convening a Constitutional Convention to the voters, this time it passed.
THE Constitutional Convention of 1878-79 produced California’s second constitution. Although technically surviving into the modern era, the document has done so weighted down with over 500 amendments and having been put through a 12 year revision process from 1966 to 1974. Although state constitutional conventions have been commonplace throughout US history, the circumstances surrounding the 1878 California Convention resulted in features which would distinguish California’s constitution from other states for the next century. Convened amidst economic upheaval, the 1878 convention had an unusually strong focus on social and economic reform. As a result, whereas most constitutions limit themselves to detailing the broad legal principles on which future laws are to be made, the 1878 constitution instead addressed many subjects normally considered statutory (not constitutional) in other states.4
In the decades after 1879, between its focus on statutory measures and legislative amendment, the California Constitution began to swell. California’s 1911 adoption of direct democracy through the ballot initiative and referendum gave citizens and interest groups the power to amend the constitution through individual initiatives. By 1930, the California constitution had grown to over 65,000 words (by comparison, the Constitution of the United States has about 4,500 words).5 The increasingly unwieldy nature of the document led to wholesale revision efforts, and on separate occasions in 1898, 1914, 1928, and 1929 the legislature put the question of a constitutional convention to the voters, where each time the measure was defeated. Finally, in 1935, voters approved convening a Constitutional Convention. However, in the midst of coping with the Great Depression, a convention was never convened.
Reform and Failure
FOLLOWING WWII, constitutional conventions surged in popularity as citizens sought to modernize obsolete and outdated state constitutions. Since 1945, Constitutional Conventions have been held in Alaska, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Rhode Island.
Meanwhile in California, in 1947 the state legislature authorized a Joint Interim Committee to draft a new constitution. They were to be assisted by an Advisory Committee which counted among its members two ex-governors, constitutional experts, and representatives from a variety of major political organizations and interest groups.6 With such an illustrious and knowledgeable group, real constitutional reform seemed assured. However, interest groups were able to limit the work of the committee to simply eliminating obsolete language.7 As it became clear the committee had no teeth, public interest faded. Although most of the Joint Interim Committee’s final recommendations were approved by both the legislature and the voters, the recommendations amounted to little more than reducing the constitution’s length by about 14,000 unnecessary words. Even with the cuts, by the late 1950’s the California constitution had grown to over 80,000 words with 350 amendments, making it the second most longest in the country.
In 1959, a body of citizen representatives called the California Citizens Legislative Advisory Commission turned its attentions to constitutional reform. The commission recommended (and voters eventually
approved) measures to empower the legislature to propose substantial constitutional revisions in addition to individual amendments. The legislature responded by appointing a new special body responsible solely for constitutional reform: the Constitution Revision Commission.
Over the course of almost a decade, the Constitution Revision Commission of 1964 to 1971 brought about some of the most substantial reforms of California’s constitution since the convention of 1878. The commission’s members included lawyers, educators, businesspeople, labor leaders, civic leaders, and others, along with a dedicated staff.8 Proposition 1-A, a key amendment element of the commission’s work, authorized major refurbishments of California’s system of governance. Voters accepted many other amendments drafted by the commission as well, addressing various constitutional improvements and simplifications. However, when it came to several particularly significant and controversial topics, such as budget reform and the amendment process, the commission found itself deadlocked between competing interest groups and was consequently unable to make significant recommendations. By the end of the process the Constitution Revision Commission, much like the Joint Interim Committee before it, had accomplished little more than reducing the length of the state’s constitution.
During the 1990’s Governor Pete Wilson appointed the second Constitutional Revision Commission. Convened at a time of economic recession, the bipartisan group had a specific mandate: examine the most controversial aspects of the constitution reform and suggest reforms. Pointing out that the state possessed more than 7,000 units of government and over 32 million residents, yet was governed by a constitution written when the population was closer to 800,000, the commission argued that major substantive constitutional changes were needed. In 1996 the commission released a list of constitutional recommendations aimed at improving accountability and responsiveness of government, eliminating barriers to efficiency and flexibility, and assuring that the state kept its fiscal house in order by maintaining a balanced budget. However, by the time the commission issued its final report California’s economy had recovered, the pressure to immediately act faded, and the commission’s work was ultimately neglected.
“The People’s Way”
CALIFORNIA’S financial system had become so fragile and so complicated that few expected it was capable of weathering a sudden crisis, such as deep and prolonged recession. The twin arrivals of the housing collapse and the banking crisis of 2008-2009, and the recession which has been left in its wake, has proved more than enough to bring California to the brink.
The scope of the failure has been spectacular. In April of 2008, even before the banking crisis was in full swing, the Governor announced a once-unimaginable budget deficit of $20.8 billion for fiscal year 2008-2009, which took Sacramento a record 80 days past the budget deadline to reconcile. However, after the budget’s eventual passage, Sacramento was immediately forced to grapple with the $24 billion projected 2009-2010 deficit, which immediately ballooned to $26 billion on midnight July 1st, on what has become the inevitable moment every year when the budget becomes past-due.
The collapse has reaped disastrous consequences on the state. At 11..6%, California’s unemployment rate is among the nation’s highest. Following California’s issuance of IOU’s to creditors to pay its bills, California’s bond rating was lowered to just above “junk” status. California’s public schools, once the nations best, long ago fell towards the bottom and are about to become even more crowded and even less well-equipped.
A May 2009 article appearing in The Economist magazine described California’s need for a new constitution as “both necessary and likely” and went on to mention the state’s thousands of overlapping government districts and marvel: it’s a “surprise anything works at all”.9 Today, calls for fundamental reform of the constitution have been revived amidst record deficits, record budget delays, and the state government’s record-low job approval rating. The system has proven incapable of reforming itself, and citizens have begun to explore ways to reform the system from the outside. When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was asked by the LA Times to comment on the push to call a Constitutional Convention, he called the effort “the only hope that I have”.10
Political dysfunction at the state level is not a new phenomenon. On numerous occasions throughout US history citizens of particular states have decided, when faced with such problems, to take the government back into their own hands. During the 1963 Michigan Constitutional Convention, Wayne State University produced what has since become a classic black and white documentary about American democracy. At the closing moments of “Michigan Can Lead the Way”, the narrator editorialized:
“There had been fears the convention would be too conservative; fears that it would be too liberal; fears that it would be racked by politics…Pro-labor or pro-farmer or pro-business…Favoring the present, trapped in the past, lost in the future. The convention had been all of these, it was not an assemblage of angels. It was a convention of men and women. Taking the best it could agree on for our time and for our people…This was the process. Sometimes calm, sometimes not so calm. Either way, it was the people’s way. It was the way of a free democracy.”
Californians have already declared that they no longer trust Sacramento. All that’s left is for them to declare their trust in each other and to unify behind a process which will finally bring real reform. What better way than a Constitutional Convention?
1 E. Dotson Wilson and Brian S. Ebbert. California’s Legislature (Sacramento: California State Legislature, Office of the Chief Clerk of the Assembly, 1998), 16.
2 Lascher, Edward. “It’s too easy to amend California’s Constitution.” Editorial. Los Angeles Times 4 Feb. 2009. 15 July 2009 <http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-hodson4-2009feb04,0,983208.story>.
3 Lee, Eugene C. “The Revision of California’s Constitution”. California Policy Seminar Brief, Vol. 3, No. 3. (April) 1991): 1.
4 Lee, Eugene C. “The Revision of California’s Constitution,” California Policy Seminar Brief, Vol. 3, No. 3 (April 1991): p. 1.
5 Lee, Eugene C. p. 2.
6 Lee, Eugene C. p. 3.
7 Hyink, Bernard L. “California Revises its Constitution”. The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 3 (September 1969): p. 640.
8 Lee, Eugene C. “The Revision of California’s Constitution,” California Policy Seminar Brief, Vol. 3, No. 3 (April 1991): p. 4.
9 “The Ungovernable State”. The Economist, May 14th 2009. http://www.economist.com/world/unitedstates/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13649050
10 Goldmacher, Shane. “Schwarzenegger threatens to shut down state government.” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2009. Accessed July 20, 2009. http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jun/11/local/me-arnold-budget11