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Prop 8 Defeat a Win for Ballot Initiatives

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Prop 8 Defeat a Win for Ballot Initiatives

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March 5, 2009: Craig Winsor (L) and Victor Choban argue about Proposition 8 as people rally in front of the California Supreme Court Building

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This week's decision striking down Prop 8, the California ballot initiative that sought to establish a constituional prohibition on same-sex marriage, might seem like a defeat for the initiative process. It wasn't.

If anything, the court's decision strengthened California's already strong initiative process. And it gave more power to initiative sponsors.

Specifically, the federal court ruled clearly, and for the first time, that initiative sponsors in California have legal standing to defend their initiative in court.

Previously, the state, through the attorney general's office, would defend an initiative that passed. But the current and previous attorneys general refused to defend Prop 8 because of their opposition to it, so the courts had to rule whether the initiative sponsors could step in and do the defending.

The federal court, in broad language, ruled that initiative sponsors (including the sponsors of Prop 8) have that right -- in California. The court argued that this authority is a natural extension of the way California's constitution and initiative process work.

Since initiative sponsors are unchecked in the process -- they don't have to get the legislature's permission or anyone else's permission to file and pursue their initiative -- it makes sense that they should be able to defend their initiative from legal challenges if it succeeds.

The court included a few sentences that seemed to disapprove of California's initiative process, and particularly the ease with which Californians can change their constitution. But the court said: this is the process you've chosen. And we're augmenting the power of initiative sponsors to reflect what you're already doing.

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