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For information about current politics, see Politics of California; for information about historical politics, see Politics of California to 1899.

California is governed as a republic, with three branches of government, the executive branch consisting of the Governor of California and the other elected constitutional officers, the legislative branch, the California State Legislature, consisting of the Assembly and Senate, and the judicial branch consisting of the Supreme Court of California and lower courts. The State also allows direct participation of the electorate by initiative, referendum, recall, and ratification.


Constitution and law

California's constitution is one of the longest collections of laws in the world, taking up 110 pages. Part of this length is caused by the fact that many voter initiatives take the form of a constitutional amendment.

Many of the individual rights clauses in the state constitution have been construed as providing rights even broader than the Bill of Rights in the federal constitution. An excellent example is the Pruneyard Shopping Center case, in which "free speech" rights beyond those required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution were found in the California Constitution by the California courts.

Executive branch

California's executive branch is headed by the Governor. Other executive positions are the Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, State Treasurer, State Controller, Insurance Commissioner, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. All offices are elected separately to concurrent four-year terms. Each officer may be elected to an office a maximum of two times. Other statewide elected offices that no longer exist include the Comptroller (which became Controller in 1862), the Surveyor General (1849–1926), and the Clerk of the Supreme Court.

The Governor has the powers and responsibilities to: sign or veto laws passed by the Legislature, including a line item veto; appoint judges, subject to ratification by the electorate; propose a state budget; give the annual State of the State address; command the state militia; and grant pardons for any crime, except cases involving impeachment by the Legislature. The Governor and Lieutenant Governor also serve as ex officio members of the University of California Board of Regents.

The Lieutenant Governor is the President of the California Senate and acts as the governor when the Governor is unable to execute the office, including whenever the Governor leaves the state. As the offices are elected separately, the two could conceivably be from separate parties; currently this is the case with Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi. This has led to interesting scenarios; when Republican Lieutenant Governor Mike Curb was temporarily in power while Democratic Governor Jerry Brown was out of the state, Curb appointed judges to vacant seats and signed or vetoed bills which Brown would have vetoed or signed, respectively.


The government proper

As for the actual state government that the Governor oversees, it is organized into several dozen departments, of which most (but not all) have been grouped together (somewhat confusingly) into agencies to reduce the number of people who report directly to the Governor. For example, the California Department of Transportation and the California Highway Patrol are part of the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.

Many of the groupings are bizarre and counterintuitive. The Department of Managed Health Care is part of Business, Transportation, and Housing, rather than the Health and Human Services Agency. And the Department of Industrial Relations (which, among many duties, inspects most elevators in California) is part of the Labor and Workforce Development Agency, not Business, Transportation and Housing.

Generally (again, there are several exceptions), a Cabinet-level head of an agency in California holds the title of "secretary", while the head of a department holds the title of "director." Exceptions include the head of the Department of the California Highway Patrol, whose title is actually "commissioner."

The vast majority of state government agencies and departments are headquartered in Sacramento or in parts of Sacramento County near the city of Sacramento; in turn, the larger agencies and departments also have local offices around the state which report to headquarters in Sacramento. Notable exceptions include the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Department of Industrial Relations, which are both headquartered in San Francisco.

Legislative branch of California

The State Capitol in Sacramento

Constitutional basis

The basic form of law in California is a republic, governed by democratically elected state Senators and Assembly members. The governing law is a constitution, interpreted by the California Supreme Court, whose members are appointed by the Governor, and ratified at the next general election. The constitution can be changed by initiatives passed by voters. Initiatives can be proposed by the governor, legislature, or by popular petition, giving California one of the most flexible legal systems in the world. The constitution makes the California legislature bicameral, with a Senate and an Assembly.


California's legislature has engaged in some rather unusual redistricting practices (noted in detail in Politics of California#Bi-partisan gerrymandering). The result is that virtually all Assembly and Senate district lines have been drawn in a way so as to favor one party or the other, and it is rare for a district to suddenly shift party allegiance.

Codification in California

In 1872, under the influence of David Dudley Field, California began codifying its laws. California was one of the earliest American states (the first was New York), to codify its statutes into named codes (Civil Code, Code of Civil Procedure, and so on).

Prior to the 1840s, legislatures in all common law jurisdictions passed "Acts" in a completely haphazard manner and published them in the order passed. The result was that to determine what the current statutory law was, a lawyer would have to find the earliest relevant act and then trace a path from past to present through a series of acts passed at different dates to determine which rules had been expanded, overruled, or superseded. The advantage of a code is that once the legislature gets into the habit of writing acts as amendments to the code, then the official copy of the code will reflect what the current statutory law is.

Since then, virtually all states and the federal government have followed the lead of California and New York and codified their statutes. However, they have preferred to write a single code with a universal numbering system. Today, only California, New York, and Texas have systems of separate subject-specific codes.

Many of the code sections have become famous throughout the U.S., like Business and Professions Code Section 17200 (unfair competition), Code of Civil Procedure Section 425.16 (anti-SLAPP special motion), Penal Code Section 187 (murder), and Penal Code Sections 667 and 1170.12 (both codifying the state three-strikes law). Also, the Federal Rules of Evidence were inspired by the success of the California Evidence Code.

The Big Five

The Big Five is an informal institution of California government, consisting of the governor, the Assembly speaker, the Assembly minority leader, the Senate president pro tempore, and the Senate minority leader. Members of the Big Five meet in private to discuss bills pending in the legislature. Because the party caucus leaders in California's legislature also control the party's legislative campaign funds, the leaders wield tremendous power over their caucus members. They are thus able to exert some influence in their caucus's votes in Big Five meetings. Therefore, if all five members agree to support a Bill, it will likely pass into law.

The Legislature and the Executive Branch

The Governor has the powers and responsibilities to: sign or veto laws passed by the Legislature, including a line item veto; propose a state budget; give the annual State of the State address and grant pardons for any crime, except cases involving impeachment by the Legislature.

As part of the system of checks and balances, the Legislature has statutory influence over the funding, organization, and procedures used by agencies of the executive branch. It also has the authority to appoint citizens to policy-making committees in the executive branch and to designate members of the Legislature to serve on agency boards. Many appointments made by the governor are subject to legislative approval.

Judicial branch

The judicial system of California is the largest in the United States that is fully staffed by professional law-trained judges; a person must be admitted to practice law before they can become a judge in California. The state judiciary has approximately 1,600 judges that hear over 8 million cases each year (with the assistance of 19,000 staff members and 400 judicial "equivalents" like commissioners and referees).

In comparison, the federal judicial system has only about 840 judges. Although New York and Texas technically have more judicial officers, a large number of them are not attorneys and have no formal legal training. California formerly had "justice of the peace" courts staffed by lay judges, but gradually phased them out after a landmark 1974 decision in which the Supreme Court of California unanimously held that it was a violation of due process to allow a non-lawyer to preside over a criminal trial which could result in incarceration of the defendant.[1]

Today, California's system is divided into three levels, with the Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal serving as appellate courts reviewing the decisions of the Superior Courts. Judicial selection and retention is conducted under a modified version of the Missouri Plan.

The California Supreme Court

Supreme Court of California headquarters in San Francisco

The California Supreme Court consists of a Chief Justice and six Associate Justices, who are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the California Commission on Judicial Appointments. Justices are also ratified by the electorate at the next general election following their appointment and at the end of each twelve year term. The Supreme Court's decisions are binding on all lower state courts.

The Court has original jurisdiction in a variety of cases, including habeas corpus proceedings, and has the authority to review all the decisions of the California Courts of Appeal, as well as an automatic appeal for cases where the death penalty has been issued by the trial court.

The Court deals with about 8,800 cases per year, although review is discretionary in most cases, and it dismisses the vast majority of petitions without comment. It hears arguments and drafts full opinions for about 100 to 120 cases each year, of which about 20 are automatic death penalty appeals.

The Supreme Court is headquartered in San Francisco, with branch offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento. It hears oral arguments each year in all three locations.

The Supreme Court supervises the lower courts through the Judicial Council of California, and also supervises California's legal profession through the State Bar of California. All lawyer admissions and disbarments are done through recommendations of the State Bar, which are then routinely ratified by the Supreme Court. California's bar is the largest in the U.S. with 200,000 members, of whom 150,000 are actively practicing.

The California Courts of Appeal

The California Courts of Appeal were added to the judicial branch by a constitutional amendment in 1904. The courts are organized into six districts, the First Appellate District in San Francisco, the Second District in Los Angeles, the Third District in Sacramento, the Fourth District in San Diego, the Fifth District in Fresno, and the Sixth District in San Jose. The districts are further divided into 19 divisions sitting throughout the state at 9 locations, and there are 105 justices serving on the Courts.

Unlike the state supreme court, the Courts of Appeal have mandatory review jurisdiction under the informal legal tradition in common law countries that all litigants are entitled to at least one appeal. In practice, this works out to about 16,000 appeals per year, resulting in 12,000 opinions (not all appeals are pursued properly or are meritorious enough to justify an opinion).

Under the common law, judicial opinions themselves have legal effect through the rule of stare decisis. But because of their crushing caseloads (about 200 matters per justice per year), the Courts of Appeal are permitted to take the shortcut of selecting only the best opinions for publication. This way, they can draft opinions fast and quickly dispose of the vast majority of cases, without worrying that they are accidentally making bad law. About 7% of their opinions are ultimately selected for publication and become part of California law.

Court of Appeal justices are selected, confirmed, and ratified just like the Supreme Court justices, although only the electorate in the appellate district vote to ratify the justices.

The Superior Courts of California

One of the many courthouses of the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Each of California's 58 counties has its own superior court, which adds up to a total of 58 Superior Courts of California. The Superior Courts have general jurisdiction over all civil and criminal matters, with the exception of certain limited areas like workers' compensation where original jurisdiction is reserved by statute to government agencies.

Before 1998, each county also had municipal or justice courts that heard some of the cases. In June, 1998, California passed Proposition 220, which allowed the judges in each county to determine if the county should have only one trial court. By 2001, all 58 counties had consolidated their courts into a single Superior Court.

Judges are either appointed by the governor after being reviewed by the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE) if a vacancy is created during a sitting judges six-year term, or elected by the county residents in nonpartisan elections if the vacancy occurs at the end of a six-year term. Additionally, every six years all judges, both elected and appointed, are up for reelection. All Superior Court judges must have been either a member of the State Bar of California or a judge in the state for ten years prior to taking office. There are a total of about 1,500 Superior Court judges, assisted by 380 commissioners and 35 referees.

The power of the Courts of Appeal over the Superior Courts

In California, the power of the intermediate Courts of Appeal over the Superior Courts is quite different from the power of the Courts of Appeals of the federal government over the federal district courts.

The first Court of Appeal to rule on a new legal issue will bind all lower Superior Courts statewide. However, litigants in other appellate districts may still appeal a Superior Court's adverse ruling to their own Court of Appeal, which has the power to fashion a different rule. When such a conflict arises, all Superior Courts have the discretion to choose which rule they like until the California Supreme Court grants review and creates a single rule that binds all courts statewide. However, where a Superior Court lies within one of the appellate districts actually involved in such a conflict, it will usually follow the rule of its own Court of appeal.

List of agencies, departments, and commissions

The over 500 California state government agencies, departments, and commissions are listed at State of California agencies, departments, and commissions.

Cities, Counties, and Special Districts

There are 480 California cities,[2] 58 California counties [3] about 3,400 Special Districts [4] and School Districts. Special Districts deliver specific public programs and public facilities to constituents. California State law defines a special district as "any agency of the state for the local performance of governmental or proprietary functions within limited boundaries." [5]

To bring the fragmentation of local government power under control, the state Legislature created Local Agency Formation Commissions in all counties except San Francisco in 1963.

See also




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