California Supreme Court Upholds Proposition 209 Against Attack that It Violates the “Political Structure” Doctrine Established by the U.S. Supreme Court

When California voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996, many people thought there would be few legal issues to follow in its wake. After all, the essence of the proposition was simple:  no more racial and sex preference programs in public employment, education or contracting.  The measure was upheld by both the California Supreme Court (Hi-Voltage Wire Words, Inc. v City of San Jose, 24 Cal.4th 537 (2000)) and the Ninth Circuit (Coalition for Economic Equity v. Wilson, 122 F.3d 692 (9th Cir. 1997)).

But one key issue remained.  Proposition 209 provides that it can only be amended by a two-thirds vote.  The lingering question was whether, by raising the approval standard for amendments from a simple majority to two-thirds, Proposition 209 imposed an improper hurdle for minority groups who might seek to enact future legislation in their favor.  Citing two key U.S. Supreme Court cases (Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S. 385 (1967) and Washington v. Seattle School District No. 4, 458 U.S. 457 (1982)), critics charged that Proposition 209 violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause on the ground that it created a political structure that was deliberately hostile to minority interests.

In Coral Construction v. City and County of San Francisco, the California Supreme Court rejected that argument.  The court noted that the “political structure” doctrine announced in the Hunter and Seattle precedents is relatively unique and rarely comes into play; it applies in a case where a law granting equal treatment is wiped off the books and replaced with a new regime where equality legislation must meet super-majority requirements.  Here, in contrast, Proposition 209 did not erase so-called “equality” laws (such as the fair housing statute at issue in the Hunter case); instead, it outlawed preference programs and mandated that to allow such programs would require a two-thirds vote. The court did not feel that this “political restructuring” ran afoul of the Equal Protection Clause.   The court hastened to observe that Proposition 209 is consistent with the “core purpose” of the Fourteenth Amendment.  And as the Ninth Circuit has noted, “It would be paradoxical to conclude that by adopting the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the voters of the State thereby had violated it.”

Whether this is the final chapter in disputes over Proposition 209 remains to be seen.  Indeed, the Coral Construction case drew a spirited and eloquent dissent from Justice Carlos Moreno, who argued that Proposition 209 singled out “racial laws” for special treatment – which is what the “political structure” doctrine is designed to address and correct.  For now, however, Proposition 209 is firmly the law of California.

For your convenience, a complete copy of the court’s opinion in the Coral Construction case is attached.

Our firm regularly advise clients on important policy questions such as those involved in the Coral Construction case. Feel free to contact us if you need assistance in this area.

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