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COALITION FOR ECONOMIC EQUITY v. WILSON

December 23, 1996

COALITION FOR ECONOMIC EQUITY, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
PETE WILSON, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HENDERSON

 I. INTRODUCTION

 This action presents a challenge to the constitutionality of newly-enacted Article 1, section 31 of the California Constitution. This measure, which appeared on the ballot as Proposition 209, was passed by the California electorate on November 5, 1996. It provides in relevant part as follows:

 
The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

 CAL. CONST. art. 1, § 31(a). *fn1"

 It is important to note at the outset that much of this language simply reaffirms existing anti-discrimination protections already provided by the United States and California Constitutions, and by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. These laws have long-guaranteed all persons "equal protection of the law," and prohibited discrimination in employment and in any program or activity receiving federal assistance. *fn2" This aspect of Proposition 209--which creates no change in existing law--is not at issue in this case. Indeed, it could hardly be more clear that a law that merely affirms the non-discrimination principles in our Constitution is, itself, constitutional.

 It is also undisputed that the Constitution precludes voluntary, government-sponsored race and gender "preferences" except in the most limited circumstances. Thus, government entities were already barred, prior to Proposition 209, from using race-conscious "preferences," e.g. race-conscious affirmative action programs, unless they could pass the most exacting "strict scrutiny" required by the Fourteenth Amendment. Under this test, only those programs that are " narrowly tailored" and " necessary to break down patterns of deliberate exclusion" perpetuated by the enacting agency are permitted. City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co., 488 U.S. 469, 509, 102 L. Ed. 2d 854, 109 S. Ct. 706 (1989)(emphasis added). *fn3" Quotas are not permitted. See, e.g., Regents of the Univ. of Calif. v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 57 L. Ed. 2d 750, 98 S. Ct. 2733 (1978). Gender-based programs, under existing law, are also subject to a heightened level of scrutiny. U.S. v. Virginia, 135 L. Ed. 2d 735, 116 S. Ct. 2264, 2275 (1996).

 In short, Congress and the courts had already prohibited discrimination, and sharply constrained government use of race and gender preferences, long before Proposition 209 was enacted on November 5, 1996. The parties do not dispute, however, that the people of California meant to do something more than simply restate existing law when they adopted Proposition 209. It is this "something more" that is the focus of this action.

 To be sure, the outer boundaries of this "something more" have yet to be determined. It is clear, however, that the primary change Proposition 209 makes to existing law is to close that narrow but significant window that permits the governmental race- and gender-conscious affirmative action programs described above that are still permissible under the United States Constitution. Notably, defendants agreed at oral argument that Proposition 209 prohibits at least some of these constitutionally permissible programs. They also failed to identify any other programs that would be affected by Proposition 209.

 It is thus essential to keep in mind that plaintiffs' constitutional challenge to Proposition 209 is not, in fact, a facial challenge to the entire initiative. Rather, it is much narrower in scope: it is a challenge only to that slice of the initiative that now prohibits governmental entities at every level from taking voluntary action to remediate past and present discrimination through the use of constitutionally permissible race- and gender-conscious affirmative action programs. *fn4"

 Plaintiffs assert that this specific aspect of Proposition 209 violates the United States Constitution on two separate grounds. First, they allege that Proposition 209, although couched in neutral terms, violates the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection guarantee of "the right to full participation in the political life of the community." Washington v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1, 458 U.S. 457, 467, 73 L. Ed. 2d 896, 102 S. Ct. 3187 (1982); see also Romer v. Evans, 134 L. Ed. 2d 855, 116 S. Ct. 1620, 1628 (1996) ("Central...to our own Constitution's guarantee of equal protection is the principle that government in each of its parts remain open on impartial terms to all who seek its assistance."). Proposition 209 violates this guarantee, they argue, because it restructures the political process in a nonneutral manner. Specifically, it erects unique political hurdles only for those seeking legislation intended to benefit women and minorities--who must now obtain a constitutional amendment--while allowing those seeking preferential legislation on any other ground unimpeded access to the political process at all levels.

 Second, plaintiffs allege that Proposition 209 violates the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution because it interferes with Congress' intent that employers be afforded the option of utilizing constitutionally permissible race- and gender-conscious affirmative action to comply with their obligations under Titles VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

 The immediate issue before the Court is whether plaintiffs *fn5" have satisfied their burden of demonstrating that defendants *fn6" should be preliminarily enjoined from enforcing or implementing Proposition 209 pending a final determination of the merits of this action. In weighing this matter, the Court is mindful that any challenge to a duly-enacted law should be met with caution and restraint. It is not for this or any other court to lightly upset the expectations of the voters. At the same time, our system of democracy teaches that the will of the people, important as it is, does not reign absolute but must be kept in harmony with our Constitution.

 Thus, the issue is not whether one judge can thwart the will of the people; rather, the issue is whether the challenged enactment complies with our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Without a doubt, federal courts have no duty more important than to protect the rights and liberties of all Americans by considering and ruling on such issues, no matter how contentious or controversial they may be. This duty is certainly undiminished where the law under consideration comes directly from the ballot box and without the benefit of the legislative process. As the Supreme Court aptly noted in another socially-charged case:

 
Nor does the implementation of...change through popular referendum immunize it [from constitutional scrutiny]. The sovereignty of the people is itself subject to those constitutional limitations which have been duly adopted and remain unrepealed.

 Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S. 385, 393, 21 L. Ed. 2d 616, 89 S. Ct. 557 (1969).

 It also cannot be overemphasized that this case does not call upon this Court to adjudicate whether affirmative action is right or wrong, or whether it is no longer an appropriate policy for addressing the continuing effects of past and present discrimination against racial minorities and women. Such questions, while they are most certainly of vital public policy interest, lie beyond the purview of this Court. Nor does this case implicate the ability of governmental entities to voluntarily repeal affirmative action policies, as the Regents of the University of California did earlier this year.

 Rather, the substantive issues raised by this action are considerably more narrow, albeit no less important: whether the particular method chosen by Proposition 209 to curtail affirmative action is unlawful because it either (1) violates the rights of women and minorities to fully participate in our political system or (2) interferes with Congressional goals embodied in Titles VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

 Based on these Findings and Conclusions, this Court rules that:

 (1) Plaintiffs have standing to bring this action.

 (2) Plaintiffs have demonstrated a probability of success on their claim that Proposition 209 violates the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection guarantee to full participation in the political life of the community.

 (3) Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate a likelihood of success on their claim that Proposition 209 violates the Supremacy Clause because it conflicts with, and is thus preempted by, Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

 (4) Plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success on their claim that Proposition 209 violates the Supremacy Clause because it conflicts with, and is thus preempted ...


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