1. Detail the components of California’s plural executive. Could this arrangement create conflict between the governor and other elected officials? Could you think of any issue which might cause conflict?


2. Detail the components of California’s bicameral legislature. Could the two hoouse arrangement create conflict between the houses and the plural executive? Could the State Supreme Court become involved in such a conflict of powers and authority?

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California State Government


Familiarize you with the origins, powers, and structure of California government.


Course lecture summary only.

Web link to California Government

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Lecture Summary:

California state government is very similar to the Federal government. Structurally, California?s government is divided into three branches, reflective of separation of powers in the national government. The power dynamic between the branches is much the same, with each branch of the state government functioning with checks and balances under a local constitution.

California?s state government is organized under a state constitution which organizes the structure of government and defines government authority. California was admitted in 1850 to the Union under the Constitution of 1850. This document was drawn up locally at the state convention held in Colton Hall in Monterey. It was subsequently changed in 1879 and is the operative social contract for California?s government and people.

This document is one of the longest in the world, over 100 pages. This is mostly an evolving result of the Progressive Era in the early 20th century and the efforts of Governor Hiram Johnson. Johnson, a Progressive Republican, led revolution in California politics by pushing a number of reforms following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the demands to break the power in special interests in the legislature.

Californians would be able to recall elected state and local elected officials, propose and select new state laws and constitutional amendments by the referendum and initiative process. Other reforms included the use of party primaries to select party candidates, secret ballots which included all candidates for general elections, and the elimination of all partisan identification for local government offices such as mayor or county supervisor.

The use of the referendum process has vastly increased the length of the state constitution. It has also enshrined unique elements into the state constitution such as hunting bans on certain animals.

However, the constitution did create a state government based, as previously mentioned, on a federal model. The executive, legislative, and judiciary branches are similar in several ways, but also unique, with a populist twist.

Executive Branch

This is where our state government begins to digress from the national model. California has an executive branch, but is a plural executive, with several statewide offices, governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, attorney general, controller, insurance commissioner and superintendent of public instructional. These are all elected by the voting public, unlike the federal model.

The governor functions as chief executive, but shares power with these other elected officials. The governor has a veto power over legislative actions, including a line item veto which allows specific veto of parts of bills. The governor appoints many officers, including judicial and executive vacancies. The governor also produces the state budget and is in charge of the state militia and state coast guard.

The lieutenant governor is a spare executive, functions as acting governor when the governor is out of state, presides over the state senate, and serves on several boards and commissions.

The secretary of state is our chief records officer, supervises voting and other record keeping functions. The treasurer is our investment and bond officer.

The controller is our financial disbursement officer who pays the state bills. The attorney general is our chief law enforcement officer in the state and supervises county district attorneys.

The insurance commissioner oversees the state insurance industry. Finally, the superintendent of public instruction oversees the K-12 educational system in the state. Each of these offices are elected to a four year term and is limited to two terms.

One essential part of this plural executive is the governor, elected like the other members, as no authority to compel these other state elected executives to follow his or her orders. A recent 2008 conflict between then Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic controller John Chiang over paying the state?s bills nearly led to a lawsuit between the two.

The essential relationship between the governor and fellow executives is one of ?primus inter pares? or first among equals.

One other portion of state government in California often included in the executive is the elected, four member State Board of Equalization, charged with setting taxation rates and fee collection within the state.

Legislative Branch

The state legislature is bicameral like the US Congress and 48 other states. It consists of a 40 member State Senate, elected to a four year term, limited to two terms of office. The senators no longer represent the 58 counties, but essentially two assembly districts since the hallmark, ?one person, one vote? US Supreme Court decision in the early 1960s ironically written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, a popular former California governor. Their powers include considering all legislation, including the state budget. While the lieutenant governor presides over the body, the real political power is with the president pro-tem who is majority leader and opposition minority party leader, much like the US Senate.

The State Assembly is the lower house, elected to two year terms and limited to 3 terms. These assembly members represent population in equally apportioned districts. This body considers the same appointments and legislation as the State Senate. The body is presided over by a Speaker of the Assembly, who is the majority leader. The second most powerful position is Assembly minority leader. This body?s lawmaking authority is like the State Senate.

All bills must pass both chambers to become law, with the governor?s signature. Replacements to the plural executive, such as the appointment of secretary of state or lieutenant governor must be approved by both houses, unlike the US Congress. This was evidenced the appointment and State Legislature approval of two local leaders, Bruce MacPherson and Abel Maldonado in 2005 and 2009 respectively by the then governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The judicial branch consists of the State Supreme Court, which considers appeals from lower state district appellate and superior courts. There are 7 members of the court, including a chief justice. Each are appointed by the governor and confirmed to 12 year terms of office by the Commission of Judicial Performance, not the State Legislature. The court has jurisdiction over state legal matters. Although, several times in the past, when the governor?s office was Republican controlled and the legislature Democratic controlled in 1970, 1980, and 1990, was constitutionally charged to draw Congressional and state legislative district lines because of a political impasse. This is one of its unique responsibilities.

The next level of state appellate courts are the State District Courts of Appeal which are organized into six regional districts statewide. These courts of appeal hear constitutional trial defect appeals from the local county Superior Courts, which are essentially part of the state government now. While the state district court justices are appointed by the governor and have the same approval process as the State Supreme Court, they too are also subject to voter reconfirmation every 12 years. Local Superior Court judges are subject to election every 6 years, like their appellate colleagues are not term limited.

While these three branches are very similar to the Federal arrangement of separation of powers and checks and balances, these also have dynamics which are unique to California.

The California State Constitution gives significant power to the people by allowing them to create law by the referendum/initiative process, recall (remove) elected officials from office, select candidates to office by the primary process and the secret ballot, and requiring all local offices to be non-partisan in nature. These reforms, which have placed so much power in the hands of the people, are the result of Progressive Republican Governor Hiram Johnson in the early 1900s.

These reforms shifted power away from special interests such as the Southern Pacific Railroad and more toward the citizens. Many politicians in California rail against the power of the people, particularly in the referendum/initiative process where the voters make law despite the power of the legislature and the governor.

Diverse politicians such as former Governor Pete Wilson and former Speaker of the Assembly Willie Brown have argued for reforming the structure of the state constitution. Both have argued for change in the structure and taxing power of local governments. California?s persistent deficits bear testimony for the need of reform.

California is replete with 58 counties, thousands of cities, school districts, community college districts, cemetery districts, landscape and lighting districts, and mosquito abatement districts all with taxing and regulatory powers. These all create regulatory and financial problems for the state government.

Each is organized by charter, granted to counties or cities, or by general law election to organize municipal corporations (municipalities). They can be created by an act of the legislature in this process.

Counties and cities typically are governed by an elected board of supervisors or city council. Executive power is frequently vested in an appointed county administrator or city manager. There are notable exceptions such as San Francisco City and County which have a merged government, a strong elected mayor executive, and an elected board of supervisors acting as a local legislature.

Many counties elect many parts of their local executive such as sheriff, district attorney, tax collector, treasurer, as do some cities. There is a movement in many larger municipalities to appoint many of these offices which require specialized skills such as treasurer or requiring POST law enforcement certification for sheriffs and police chiefs.

Most of these offices have four year terms and face not term limitations unless the local community sets them. Local county and city (municipal) courts have gradually been consolidated and had requirements for professional judges (as opposed to lay, non-lawyer, judges since 1977. While the local county voters elect these court judges, the costs of the courts is almost entirely borne by the state government.


California is a unique place with equally unique geography, weather, and population which is a microcosm of our nation. With 10% of the US population, every weather form except tropical, and every geographical point of reference, the state certainly seems poised to exhibit unique politics. Our state constitution is certainly exhibits a love of democracy, particularly direct democracy.

It remains clear that the legacy of Hiram Johnson, that is giving power to the people rather than the elected politicians, remains intact. Whatever problems of popular democracy, the concept and the disorderly nature of California politics persists. Certainly Hiram Johnson, and his varied successors such as Earl Warren, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown, and the later notorious Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger found that the challenges of governing the ungovernable state agonizing.

With a redux of Jerry Brown in the governorship, we see one of the oldest and longest serving governors in two separate eight year tenures as governor. He too, has found many challenges in governing “the ungovernable state. However, the California government, like the California dream persists in spite of these challenges.

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