What If the Voters Overturn Other Constitutional Rights Decisions?

A common argument against the constitutionality of Prop. 8 was to hypothesize what would happen if voters overturn other constitutional rights decisions, or for that matter repeal expressly secured constitutional rights:

[U]nder the majority's view, it is not clear what sorts of state constitutional constraints limit the power of a majority of the electorate to discriminate against minorities. As petitioners point out, “imagine if Perez v. Sharp, 32 Cal.2d 711 (1948), striking down California's ban on interracial marriages, had been decided on state constitutional grounds rather than federal constitutional grounds. And imagine if a bare majority had attempted to overturn that landmark ruling by enshrining the ban into the Constitution.” Other equally unattractive hypotheticals suggest themselves. Under the majority's reasoning, California's voters could permissibly amend the state Constitution to limit Catholics' right to freely exercise their religious beliefs (Cal. Const., art. I, § 4), condition African-Americans' right to vote on their ownership of real property (id., § 22), or strip women of the right to enter into or pursue a business or profession ( id., § 8). While the federal Constitution would likely bar these initiatives, the California Constitution is intended to operate independently of (art. I, § 24), and in some cases more broadly than (see, e.g., Fashion Valley Mall v. National Labor Relations Board (2007) 42 Cal.4th 850, 857-858), its federal counterpart. The majority's holding essentially strips the state Constitution of its independent vitality in protecting the fundamental rights of suspect classes. And if the majority does not avow that such broad constitutional changes could be made by amendment, but only more “limited” ones, then I disagree with such an implicit distinction. As discussed, denying gays and lesbians the right to marry, by wrenching minority rights away from judicial protection and subjecting them instead to a majority vote, attacks the very core of the equal protection principle.

And these hypotheticals could likewise be raised not just as to the initiative amendment process, but also the legislative revision process, since one can imagine the same voters' electing enough legislators who would support those voters' preferences. (To be sure, that isn't politically likely, but neither are the other hypotheticals particularly likely; they certainly haven't been enacted in the past, even in times in which they might have been politically more plausible.) So Justice Moreno's argument can't easily be cabined in a way that would apply to the narrow question of what's an amendment and what's a revision -- it would equally cast into doubt (or not cast into doubt) the people's power to amend the constitution through legislative proposal or through a constitutional amendment.

But it seems to me the answer to this is clear: Those amendments would indeed be legally permissible changes to the California Constitution. (One might distinguish limitations on voting rights, on the grounds that they would entrench themselves, by stripping some people of the legal right to repeal those amendments; but wherever such a constitutional principle might or might not reside, that doesn't apply to same-sex marriage, or many other examples.)

They would be immoral. In extreme cases, they might constitute a sufficient moral justification for revolution (a matter I flag simply because the possibility can't be denied, and because of course our own U.S. Constitution is built in large part on a revolution against the existing order, plus likely a slightly later, peaceful and broadly accepted, coup against the existing order). They would violate the U.S. Constitution, and thus would be struck down on those grounds. But under the California Constitution, it seems to me that they should be understood simply as the sovereign changing the Constitution in a way that's very bad but that is consistent with that constitution.

In any event, what makes those provisions wrong is not that they are legally "revisions" rather than "amendments" and thus illegal. What makes them wrong is that they are morally wrong and thus immoral. But ultimately that judgment about what is morally wrong, as I mentioned, is under the California Constitution left to the sovereign people, and not the sovereign's servants in the state supreme court.