California’s Governmental Structure: From Chaos to Confusion to Compromise—Why the State is Set Up the Way it Is

From its earliest days, California's government has always had some unusual aspects.

PUBLISHED NOV 22, 2022 9:39 A.M.
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California's State Capitol, seat of a government with a colorful history, to say the least.

California's State Capitol, seat of a government with a colorful history, to say the least.   Tony Webster / Wikimedia Commons   Tony Webster / Wikimedia Commons

To say that the pre-statehood government of California was in flux would be quite an understatement. The territory started the century as a colony of Spain ruled by the Spanish King Charles IV. The French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte forced Charles to abdicate in 1808, handing the crown to his son, King Ferdinand VII. Napoleon then kicked Ferdinand off the throne and installed his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as King of Spain and the Indies—the “Indies” being the American colonies including Mexico and its California region. So for a few years at least, California was ruled by Napoleon, through his older brother. 

(That didn’t sit well with the Mexicans, who remained loyal to Ferdinand, who was held prisoner by Napoleon. Joseph abdicated in favor of Ferdinand in 1813 and fled to the fledgling United States after his younger brother’s famous defeat at Waterloo.)

The Utter Chaos of California’s Earliest Government

Mexico took advantage of the Spanish disarray by igniting and, in 1821, winning a war of independence. But Mexico’s independence only led to more disarray in Alta California, as it was known then. The Mexican government installed a governor in 1831, Manuel Victoria, who quickly seized dictatorial power for himself—and was removed from office by an armed rebellion a year later.

That wasn’t the end of the wild political swings in the territory. Another revolution in 1836 led to Alta California declaring independence from Mexico, only to see its first governor, Juan Bautista Alvarado, rescind that declaration the following year, and once again accept the Mexican Constitution as California’s own. Yet another revolution came in 1844 with the Californians again kicking out a Mexican governor and placing their own choice, Pio Pico, in the top job. The Mexican government gave its OK to Pico in exchange for California's remaining part of Mexico. 

And then, the United States invaded.

The Mexican-American war broke out in 1846 and centered mainly on Texas. But the Americans had their sights set on what they called “Mexican California” as well. The invaders had little understanding of the California political currents of the time and assumed they were fighting directly against Mexico—when in actuality their battlefield foes were the same Californians who sought nothing but autonomy from any government except their own, and were more than willing to negotiate for it. 

In fact, when a peace treaty finally was negotiated, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, it was done so without the knowledge of the U.S. President, James Polk, who was furious. He grudgingly accepted the treaty, then promptly fired the diplomat who negotiated it, Nicholas Trist, when Trist made his way back to Washington D.C. Polk had hoped to capture Baja California for the U.S. as well. 

The Beginnings of Modern California Government

A little more than two years after the Guadalupe Hidalgo treaty was signed, annexing Alta California as a U.S. territory, Congress passed the Compromise of 1850. The package of legislation was designed to admit western territories into the union without alienating southern slaveholders. But the Compromise assured that California would be admitted as a free state. 

On Sept. 9 of that year, one of the most unremarkable presidents in American history, Millard Fillmore, took an action that would prove one of the most consequential in the development of the country. He signed the Compromise package, welcoming California as the 31st of the United States of America.

The state already had a constitution ready to go. It had been ratified in 1849, after being drafted at a convention of 48 delegates at Colton Hall in Monterey, in anticipation of the territory’s coming elevation to statehood. The state constitution remained in effect once Fillmore signed the law making California an official state.

That original constitution set up the same distribution of power among three “departments,” or branches, of government that still exist today. The legislative branch consisting of two houses,  senate and assembly, held the power to make laws. The power to execute those laws rested in a “Chief Magistrate” who would go by the title Governor of California. 

The power to pass judgment on people who break the laws, as well as the power to interpret the laws, rested in a multi-level judicial system topped by the state Supreme Court, going all the way down to county courts. 

The basic structure spelled out in the 1849 constitution still stands today, but some aspects of the state’s founding document have been consigned to the dustbin of history—in particular the constitution’s provision restricting voting rights to “every white male citizen,” and also banning any “idiot or insane person.” The constitution did allow the legislature to grant suffrage to “Indians or the descendants of Indians” should it choose to do so by a two-thirds majority vote. But it never did.

Not until 1870, when the U.S.  Congress ratified the 15th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of “race, color or previous conditions of servitude” did California’s indigenous people receive at least the technical right to vote. But most California Native American people were still shut out from voting for another 54 years until Congress passed the 1924 Citizenship Act recognizing native people as full U.S. citizens with voting rights.

The 1849 Constitution also contained a lengthy bill of rights that guaranteed many of the same rights spelled out in the federal Constitution. It also explicitly banned slavery—something that would not happen at the federal level for another 16 years. 

The California Constitution Gets a Do-Over

Three decades passed under the 1849 constitution with only three amendments added to the original text. But the constitution left many state government functions rather vague so in 1879, a new constitution was drafted and ratified. The new version contained a number of innovative changes. It established the University of California as a “public trust,” making the higher education system largely autonomous, governed by its own Board of Regents rather than by the legislature. The Constitution also established a 40-hour work week at a time when workers in the country’s nascent manufacturing industries routinely worked a crushing 100 hours per week. 

The 1879 constitution more sharply outlined the powers of the legislature to spend public money, and it confronted political corruption head-on. “Lobbying,” the practice of seeking to “influence the vote of a member of the Legislature by bribery, promise of reward, intimidation, or any other dishonest means,” was deemed a felony, as was accepting such influential inducement from lobbyists.”

That anti-lobbying clause was met with skepticism, however. An editorial in the Sacramento Daily Union rather jadedly proclaimed that lobbying was one of those activities which, though questionable, “cannot be reached by law, and every intelligent member of the [Constitutional] Convention knew this.” And a 2003 article by California historian Judson Grenier said that the 1879 Constitution “in fact did little to alter the fundamental structure of officialdom imposed by the first constitution.”

But the new constitution wasn’t all progressive reforms. Article XIX imposed draconian restrictions on the rights of Chinese and “Mongolian” immigrants, giving the legislature power to “prescribe all necessary regulations for the protection of the State, and the counties, cities, and towns thereof, from the burdens and evils arising from the presence of aliens who are or may become vagrants, paupers, mendicants, criminals, or invalids.”  

The constitutional provision barred employment of Chinese people both by government agencies and private corporations. Amazingly, this stunningly racist provision of the state constitution remained in place until 1952, when voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 14 repealing Article XIX.

California Government Today

The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788, and has been amended just 27 times since, and not at all since 1992. California’s 1879 Constitution has been amended more than 500 times, making it the eighth-wordiest constitution of any government in the world. The three-branch structure of the government laid out in both the 1849 and 1879 constitutions remains in place, but the government itself has become much more complex. 

As of 2022, according to the state controller’s office, the state government employed 258,483 Californians.

In addition to laws passed by the legislature, more than 200 state agencies create regulations to enforce those laws, and each regulation has the same authority as a law passed by the legislature itself. The California Office of Administrative Law, however, must approve all regulations to make sure they are “clear, necessary, legally valid, and available to the public.”

According to a 2020 study of state regulations at George Mason University, California is far and away the most heavily regulated state, with nearly 400,000 regulations on the books. The national average for the 50 states, per the study, is 135,000 regulations.

The governor is not the only elected official in the executive branch. Six other officials are also chosen by voters statewide: attorney general, secretary of state, controller (the state’s chief financial officer), insurance commissioner, treasurer, and of course, lieutenant governor. The state Board of Equalization is also elected but is divided into four districts. The board is responsible for administering the state’s property tax system, as well as taxes on alcoholic beverages, insurance companies and private railroads. 

In California, all state elected officials serve limited terms. The governor may serve two four-year terms, either back-to-back or not. But only governors whose first term, or terms, came prior to 1990—when voters passed Proposition 140 imposing the limits on all state elected officials—are grandfathered in to, if they can win their elections, serve one or two more terms. That’s how Gov. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown was allowed a third and fourth term from 2011 to 2019, after earlier serving as governor for eight years from 1975 to 1983.

Under a later term limits law, Proposition 28 passed in 2012, state legislators are limited to 12 years, total, either in the assembly or the senate or in combination. The state’s 40 senators each serve four-year terms. Assembly members, of which there are 80, each serve two-year terms. Since the passage of Proposition 1-A in 1966, the job of California state legislator has been a full-time one.

The ‘Fourth Branch’ of Government

Why has the California constitution been amended hundreds of times? Why do governors and other elected officials sometimes face recall elections? How have voters effectively vetoed 29 laws passed by the legislature, taking them off the books? The answer to all of those questions is that in California, there are in effect four branches of government. The people—at least the ones willing to vote—act as a fourth branch. Under the California system of “direct democracy,” instituted by Gov. Hiram Johnson in 1911, voters have had three powers, on top of their power to elect their public officials: initiative, recall, and referendum.

Through the initiative process, voters may pass laws often by amending the state constitution. A referendum election allows voters to approve or veto laws that have been dutifully passed by the legislature and signed by the governor. Finally, the recall process is self-explanatory. Voters can kick an elected official out of office. That’s happened only once, when voters recalled Gov. Gray Davis in 2003.

In all, only six elected state officials have been recalled since 1913 when the direct democracy system took effect—out of 179 attempts. Though, because recall efforts must start as petitions, only 11 have ever gathered enough signatures to appear on the ballot. 

In the early 20th century when political reformers known as “progressives” first conceived the direct democracy system, their intent was to end the rampant political corruption that ended up with the Southern Pacific Railroad company seizing near-complete control over state and local government in California, through bribery, blackmail, price-fixing and other illicit activities. But once the system was in place, voters used it for all sorts of things. In 1920 voters passed a ballot initiative to prevent the state from enforcing the national Prohibition law. But two years later, they reversed themselves and voted in favor of the alcoholic beverage ban—only to switch again with another initiative the following year.

More recently, the ballot initiative process was used to pass Proposition 13 in 1978, a constitutional amendment that placed a cap on property tax rates—a law that continued to affect how cities, counties and the state fund their public services well into the 21st century with no end in sight.

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