Hollingsworth v. Perry
570 U.S. ___ (2013)

Annotate this Case

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

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No. 12–144

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DENNIS HOLLINGSWORTH, et al., PETITIONERS v. KRISTIN M. PERRY et al.

on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

[June 26, 2013]

     Justice Kennedy, with whom Justice Thomas, Jus- tice Alito, and Justice Sotomayor join, dissenting.

     The Court’s opinion is correct to state, and the Supreme Court of California was careful to acknowledge, that a proponent’s standing to defend an initiative in federal court is a question of federal law. Proper resolution of the justiciability question requires, in this case, a threshold determination of state law. The state-law question is how California defines and elaborates the status and authority of an initiative’s proponents who seek to intervene in court to defend the initiative after its adoption by the electorate. Those state-law issues have been addressed in a metic- ulous and unanimous opinion by the Supreme Court of California.

     Under California law, a proponent has the authority to appear in court and assert the State’s interest in defending an enacted initiative when the public officials charged with that duty refuse to do so. The State deems such an appearance essential to the integrity of its initiative process. Yet the Court today concludes that this state-defined status and this state-conferred right fall short of meeting federal requirements because the proponents cannot point to a formal delegation of authority that tracks the requirements of the Restatement of Agency. But the State Supreme Court’s definition of proponents’ powers is binding on this Court. And that definition is fully sufficient to establish the standing and adversity that are requisites for justiciability under Article III of the United States Constitution.

     In my view Article III does not require California, when deciding who may appear in court to defend an initiative on its behalf, to comply with the Restatement of Agency or with this Court’s view of how a State should make its laws or structure its government. The Court’s reasoning does not take into account the fundamental principles or the practical dynamics of the initiative system in California, which uses this mechanism to control and to bypass pub- lic officials—the same officials who would not defend the initiative, an injury the Court now leaves unremedied. The Court’s decision also has implications for the 26 other States that use an initiative or popular referendum system and which, like California, may choose to have initiative proponents stand in for the State when public officials decline to defend an initiative in litigation. See M. Waters, Initiative and Referendum Almanac 12 (2003). In my sub- mission, the Article III requirement for a justiciable case or controversy does not prevent proponents from having their day in court.

     These are the premises for this respectful dissent.

I

     As the Court explains, the State of California sustained a concrete injury, sufficient to satisfy the requirements of Article III, when a United States District Court nullified a portion of its State Constitution. See ante, at 11 (citing Maine v. Taylor, 477 U. S. 131, 137 (1986) ). To determine whether justiciability continues in appellate proceedings after the State Executive acquiesced in the District Court’s adverse judgment, it is necessary to ascertain what persons, if any, have “authority under state law to represent the State’s interests” in federal court. Karcher v. May, 484 U. S. 72, 82 (1987) ; see also Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U. S. 43, 65 (1997) .

     As the Court notes, the California Elections Code does not on its face prescribe in express terms the duties or rights of proponents once the initiative becomes law. Ante, at 8. If that were the end of the matter, the Court’s analysis would have somewhat more force. But it is not the end of the matter. It is for California, not this Court, to determine whether and to what extent the Elections Code provisions are instructive and relevant in determining the authority of proponents to assert the State’s interest in postenactment judicial proceedings. And it is likewise not for this Court to say that a State must determine the substance and meaning of its laws by statute, or by judicial decision, or by a combination of the two. See Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U. S. 234, 255 (1957) (plurality opinion); Dreyer v. Illinois, 187 U. S. 71, 84 (1902) . That, too, is for the State to decide.

     This Court, in determining the substance of state law, is “bound by a state court’s construction of a state statute.” Wisconsin v. Mitchell, 508 U. S. 476, 483 (1993) . And the Supreme Court of California, in response to the certified question submitted to it in this case, has determined that State Elections Code provisions directed to initiative proponents do inform and instruct state law respecting the rights and status of proponents in postelection judicial proceedings. Here, in reliance on these statutes and the California Constitution, the State Supreme Court has held that proponents do have authority “under California law to appear and assert the state’s interest in the initiative’s validity and appeal a judgment invalidating the measure when the public officials who ordinarily defend the measure or appeal such a judgment decline to do so.” Perry v. Brown, 52 Cal. 4th 1116, 1127, 265 P. 3d 1002, 1007 (2011).

     The reasons the Supreme Court of California gave for its holding have special relevance in the context of determining whether proponents have the authority to seek a federal-court remedy for the State’s concrete, substantial, and continuing injury. As a class, official proponents are a small, identifiable group. See Cal. Elec. Code Ann. §9001(a) (West Cum. Supp. 2013). Because many of their decisions must be unanimous, see §§9001(b)(1), 9002(b), they are necessarily few in number. Their identities are public. §9001(b)(2). Their commitment is substantial. See §§9607–9609 (West Cum. Supp. 2013) (obtaining pe- tition signatures); §9001(c) (monetary fee); §§9065(d), 9067, 9069 (West 2003) (drafting arguments for official ballot pamphlet). They know and understand the purpose and operation of the proposed law, an important requisite in defending initiatives on complex matters such as taxation and insurance. Having gone to great lengths to convince voters to enact an initiative, they have a stake in the outcome and the necessary commitment to provide zealous advocacy.

     Thus, in California, proponents play a “unique role . . . in the initiative process.” 52 Cal. 4th, at 1152, 265 P. 3d, at 1024. They “have a unique relationship to the voter-approved measure that makes them especially likely to be reliable and vigorous advocates for the measure and to be so viewed by those whose votes secured the initiative’s enactment into law.” Ibid.; see also id., at 1160, 265 P. 3d, at 1030 (because of “their special relationship to the ini- tiative measure,” proponents are “the most obvious and logical private individuals to ably and vigorously defend the validity of the challenged measure on behalf of the interests of the voters who adopted the initiative into law”). Proponents’ authority under state law is not a contrivance. It is not a fictional construct. It is the product of the California Constitution and the California Elections Code. There is no basis for this Court to set aside the California Supreme Court’s determination of state law.

     The Supreme Court of California explained that its holding was consistent with recent decisions from other States. Id., at 1161–1165, 265 P. 3d, at 1031–1033. In Sportsmen for I–143 v. Fifteenth Jud. Ct., 2002 MT 18, 308 Mont. 189, 40 P. 3d 400, the Montana Supreme Court unanimously held that because initiative sponsors “may be in the best position to defend their interpretation” of the initiative and had a “direct, substantial, legally protectable interest in” the lawsuit challenging that interpretation, they were “entitled to intervene as a matter of right.” Id., at 194–195, 40 P. 3d, at 403. The Alaska Supreme Court reached a similar unanimous result in Alaskans for a Common Language Inc., v. Kritz, 3 P. 3d 906 (2000). It noted that, except in extraordinary cases, “a sponsor’s direct interest in legislation enacted through the initiative process and the concomitant need to avoid the appearance of [a conflict of interest] will ordinarily preclude courts from denying intervention as of right to a sponsoring group.” Id., at 914.

     For these and other reasons, the Supreme Court of California held that the California Elections Code and Article II, §8, of the California Constitution afford proponents “the authority . . . to assert the state’s interest in the validity of the initiative” when State officials decline to do so. 52 Cal. 4th, at 1152, 265 P. 3d, at 1024. The court repeated this unanimous holding more than a half-dozen times and in no uncertain terms. See id., at 1126, 1127, 1139, 1149, 1151, 1152, 1165, 256 P. 3d, at 1006, 1007, 1015, 1022, 1024, 1025, 1033; see also id., at 1169–1170, 265 P. 3d, at 1036–1037 (Kennard, J., concurring). That should suffice to resolve the central issue on which the federal question turns.

II

A

     The Court concludes that proponents lack sufficient ties to the state government. It notes that they “are not elected,” “answer to no one,” and lack “ ‘a fiduciary obligation’ ” to the State. Ante, at 15 (quoting 1 Restatement (Third) of Agency §1.01, Comments e, f (2005)). But what the Court deems deficiencies in the proponents’ connection to the State government, the State Supreme Court saw as essential qualifications to defend the initiative system. The very object of the initiative system is to establish a lawmaking process that does not depend upon state officials. In California, the popular initiative is necessary to implement “the theory that all power of government ultimately resides in the people.” 52 Cal. 4th, at 1140, 265 P. 3d, at 1016 (internal quotation marks omitted). The right to adopt initiatives has been described by the California courts as “one of the most precious rights of [the State’s] democratic process.” Ibid. (internal quotation marks omitted). That historic role for the initiative system “grew out of dissatisfaction with the then governing public officials and a widespread belief that the people had lost control of the political process.” Ibid. The initiative’s “primary purpose,” then, “was to afford the people the ability to propose and to adopt constitutional amendments or statutory provisions that their elected public officials had refused or declined to adopt.” Ibid.

     The California Supreme Court has determined that this purpose is undermined if the very officials the initiative process seeks to circumvent are the only parties who can defend an enacted initiative when it is challenged in a legal proceeding. See id., at 1160, 265 P. 3d, at 1030; cf. Alaskans for a Common Language, supra, at 914 (noting that proponents must be allowed to defend an enacted initiative in order to avoid the perception, correct or not, “that the interests of [the proponents] were not being defended vigorously by the executive branch”). Giving the Governor and attorney general this de facto veto will erode one of the cornerstones of the State’s governmental structure. See 52 Cal. 4th, at 1126–1128, 265 P. 3d, at 1006–1007. And in light of the frequency with which initiatives’ opponents resort to litigation, the impact of that veto could be substantial. K. Miller, Direct Democracy and the Courts 106 (2009) (185 of the 455 initiatives approved in Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington between 1900 and 2008 were challenged in court). As a consequence, California finds it necessary to vest the re- sponsibility and right to defend a voter-approved initiative in the initiative’s proponents when the State Executive declines to do so.

     Yet today the Court demands that the State follow the Restatement of Agency. See ante, at 15–16. There are reasons, however, why California might conclude that a conventional agency relationship is inconsistent with the history, design, and purpose of the initiative process. The State may not wish to associate itself with proponents or their views outside of the “extremely narrow and limited” context of this litigation, 52 Cal. 4th, at 1159, 265 P. 3d, at 1029, or to bear the cost of proponents’ legal fees. The State may also wish to avoid the odd conflict of having a formal agent of the State (the initiative’s proponent) arguing in favor of a law’s validity while state officials (e.g., the attorney general) contend in the same proceeding that it should be found invalid.

     Furthermore, it is not clear who the principal in an agency relationship would be. It would make little sense if it were the Governor or attorney general, for that would frustrate the initiative system’s purpose of circumventing elected officials who fail or refuse to effect the public will. Id., at 1139–1140, 265 P. 3d, at 1016. If there is to be a principal, then, it must be the people of California, as the ultimate sovereign in the State. See ibid., 265 P. 3d, at 1015–1016 (quoting Cal. Const., Art. II, §1) (“ ‘All political power is inherent in the people’ ”). But the Restatement may offer no workable example of an agent representing a principal composed of nearly 40 million residents of a State. Cf. 1 Restatement (Second) of Agency, p. 2, Scope Note (1957) (noting that the Restatement “does not state the special rules applicable to public officers”); 1 Restatement (First) of Agency, p. 4, Scope Note (1933) (same).

     And if the Court’s concern is that the proponents are unaccountable, that fear is neither well founded nor suf- ficient to overcome the contrary judgment of the State Supreme Court. It must be remembered that both elected officials and initiative proponents receive their authority to speak for the State of California directly from the people. The Court apparently believes that elected officials are acceptable “agents” of the State, see ante, at 11–12, but they are no more subject to ongoing supervision of their principal—i.e., the people of the State—than are initiative proponents. At most, a Governor or attorney general can be recalled or voted out of office in a subsequent election, but proponents, too, can have their authority terminated or their initiative overridden by a subsequent ballot measure. Finally, proponents and their attor- neys, like all other litigants and counsel who appear before a federal court, are subject to duties of candor, deco- rum, and respect for the tribunal and co-parties alike, all of which guard against the possibility that initiative proponents will somehow fall short of the appropriate stan- dards for federal litigation.

B

     Contrary to the Court’s suggestion, this Court’s precedents do not indicate that a formal agency relationship is necessary. In Karcher v. May, 484 U. S. 72 (1987) , the Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly (Karcher) and President of the New Jersey Senate (Orechio) intervened in support of a school moment-of-silence law that the State’s Governor and attorney general declined to defend in court. In considering the question of standing, the Court looked to New Jersey law to determine whether Karcher and Orechio “had authority under state law to represent the State’s interest in both the District Court and Court of Appeals.” Id., at 82. The Court concluded that they did. Because the “New Jersey Supreme Court ha[d] granted applications of the Speaker of the General Assembly and the President of the Senate to intervene as parties-respondent on behalf of the legislature in defense of a legislative enactment,” the Karcher Court held that standing had been proper in the District Court and Court of Appeals. Ibid. By the time the case arrived in this Court, Karcher and Orechio had lost their presiding legislative offices, without which they lacked the authority to represent the State under New Jersey law. This, the Court held, deprived them of standing. Id., at 81. Here, by contrast, proponents’ authority under California law is not contingent on officeholder status, so their standing is unaffected by the fact that they “hold no office” in California’s Government. Ante, at 12.

     Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U. S. 43 (1997) , is consistent with the premises of this dissent, not with the rationale of the Court’s opinion. See ante, at 13–14. There, the Court noted its serious doubts as to the aspiring defenders’ standing because there was “no Ari- zona law appointing initiative sponsors as agents of the people of Arizona to defend, in lieu of public officials, the constitutionality of initiatives made law of the State.” 520 U. S., at 65. The Court did use the word “agents”; but, read in context, it is evident that the Court’s intention was not to demand a formal agency relationship in compliance with the Restatement. Rather, the Court used the term as shorthand for a party whom “state law authorizes” to “represent the State’s interests” in court. Ibid.

     Both the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of California were mindful of these precedents and sought to comply with them. The state court, noting the importance of Arizonans for Official English, expressed its understanding that “the high court’s doubts as to the official initiative proponents’ standing in that case were based, at least in substantial part, on the fact that the court was not aware of any ‘Arizona law appointing initiative sponsors as agents of the people of Arizona to defend . . . the constitutionality of initiatives made law of the State.’ ” 52 Cal. 4th, at 1136–1137, 265 P. 3d, at 1013–1014 (quoting 520 U. S., at 65). Based on this passage, it concluded that “nothing in [Arizonans for Official English] indicates that if a state’s law does authorize the official proponents of an initiative to assert the state’s interest in the validity of a challenged state initiative when the public officials who ordinarily assert that interest have declined to do so, the proponents would not have standing to assert the state’s interest in the initiative’s validity in a federal lawsuit.” Id., at 1137, 265 P. 3d, at 1014.

     The Court of Appeals, too, was mindful of this requirement. Perry v. Brown, 671 F. 3d 1052, 1072–1073 (CA9 2012). Although that panel divided on the proper resolution of the merits of this case, it was unanimous in concluding that proponents satisfy the requirements of Article III. Compare id., at 1070–1075 (majority opinion), with id., at 1096–1097 (N. R. Smith, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Its central premise, ignored by the Court today, was that the “State’s highest court [had] held that California law provides precisely what the Arizonans Court found lacking in Arizona law: it confers on the official proponents of an initiative the authority to assert the State’s interests in defending the constitutionality of that initiative, where state officials who would ordinarily assume that responsibility choose not to do so.” Id., at 1072 (majority opinion). The Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court did not ignore Arizonans for Official English; they were faithful to it.

C

     The Court’s approach in this case is also in tension with other cases in which the Court has permitted individuals to assert claims on behalf of the government or others. For instance, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 42(a)(2) allows a court to appoint a private attorney to investigate and prosecute potential instances of criminal contempt. Under the Rule, this special prosecutor is not the agent of the appointing judge; indeed, the prosecutor’s “determination of which persons should be targets of the investigation, what methods of investigation should be used, what information will be sought as evidence,” whom to charge, and other “decisions . . . critical to the conduct of a prosecution, are all made outside the supervision of the court.” Young v. United States ex rel. Vuitton et Fils S. A., 481 U. S. 787, 807 (1987) . Also, just as proponents have been authorized to represent the State of California, “ ‘[p]rivate attorneys appointed to prosecute a criminal contempt action represent the United States,’ ” United States v. Providence Journal Co., 485 U. S. 693, 700 (1988) . They are “appointed solely to pursue the public interest in vindication of the court’s authority,” Young, supra, at 804, an interest that—like California’s interest in the validity of its laws—is “unique to the sovereign,” Providence Journal Co., supra, at 700. And, although the Court dismisses the proponents’ standing claim because initiative proponents “are not elected” and “decide for themselves, with no review, what arguments to make and how to make them” in defense of the enacted initiative, ante, at 15, those same charges could be leveled with equal if not greater force at the special prosecutors just discussed. See Young, supra, at 807.

     Similar questions might also arise regarding qui tam actions, see, e.g., Vermont Agency of Natural Resources v. United States ex rel. Stevens, 529 U. S. 765 –778 (2000); suits involving “next friends” litigating on behalf of a real party in interest, see, e.g., Whitmore v. Arkansas, 495 U. S. 149 –166 (1990); or shareholder-derivative suits, see, e.g., Gollust v. Mendell, 501 U. S. 115 –126 (1991). There is no more of an agency relationship in any of these settings than in the instant case, yet the Court has nonetheless permitted a party to assert the interests of another. That qui tam actions and “next friend” litigation may have a longer historical pedigree than the initiative process, see ante, at 12–13, is no basis for finding Article III’s standing requirement met in those cases but lacking here. In short, the Court today unsettles its longtime understanding of the basis for jurisdiction in representative-party litigation, leaving the law unclear and the District Court’s judgment, and its accompanying state- wide injunction, effectively immune from appellate review.

III

     There is much irony in the Court’s approach to justiciability in this case. A prime purpose of justiciability is to ensure vigorous advocacy, yet the Court insists upon litigation conducted by state officials whose preference is to lose the case. The doctrine is meant to ensure that courts are responsible and constrained in their power, but the Court’s opinion today means that a single district court can make a decision with far-reaching effects that cannot be reviewed. And rather than honor the principle that justiciability exists to allow disputes of public policy to be resolved by the political process rather than the courts, see, e.g., Allen v. Wright, 468 U. S. 737 –752 (1984), here the Court refuses to allow a State’s authorized representatives to defend the outcome of a democratic election.

     The Court’s opinion disrespects and disparages both the political process in California and the well-stated opinion of the California Supreme Court in this case. The California Supreme Court, not this Court, expresses concern for vigorous representation; the California Supreme Court, not this Court, recognizes the necessity to avoid conflicts of interest; the California Supreme Court, not this Court, comprehends the real interest at stake in this litigation and identifies the most proper party to defend that interest. The California Supreme Court’s opinion reflects a better understanding of the dynamics and principles of Article III than does this Court’s opinion.

     Of course, the Court must be cautious before entering a realm of controversy where the legal community and society at large are still formulating ideas and approaches to a most difficult subject. But it is shortsighted to misconstrue principles of justiciability to avoid that subject. As the California Supreme Court recognized, “the question before us involves a fundamental procedural issue that may arise with respect to any initiative measure, without regard to its subject matter.” 52 Cal. 4th, at 1124, 265 P. 3d, at 1005 (emphasis in original). If a federal court must rule on a constitutional point that either confirms or rejects the will of the people expressed in an initiative, that is when it is most necessary, not least necessary, to insist on rules that ensure the most committed and vigorous adversary arguments to inform the rulings of the courts.

*  *  *

     In the end, what the Court fails to grasp or accept is the basic premise of the initiative process. And it is this. The essence of democracy is that the right to make law rests in the people and flows to the government, not the other way around. Freedom resides first in the people without need of a grant from government. The California initiative process embodies these principles and has done so for over a century. “Through the structure of its government, and the character of those who exercise government authority, a State defines itself as sovereign.” Gregory v. Ashcroft, 501 U. S. 452, 460 (1991) . In California and the 26 other States that permit initiatives and popular referendums, the people have exercised their own inherent sovereign right to govern themselves. The Court today frustrates that choice by nullifying, for failure to comply with the Restatement of Agency, a State Supreme Court decision holding that state law authorizes an enacted initiative’s proponents to defend the law if and when the State’s usual legal advocates decline to do so. The Court’s opinion fails to abide by precedent and misapplies basic principles of justiciability. Those errors necessitate this respectful dissent.

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