The California Supreme Court held that CEQA review is not a prerequisite to directly adopting a voter initiative under Elections Code section 9214, subdivision (a), when it decided Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance v. Superior Court (Wal-Mart Stores), Case No. S207173, on August 7, 2014. The Court reversed the Fifth District Court of Appeal’s opinion in Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance v. Superior Court (2012) (previously reported at 210 Cal.App.4th 1006).
A Wal-Mart store in the City of Sonora sought to expand into a Supercenter. Before the City Council voted on the project, voters circulated the “Wal-Mart Initiative,” which proposed to adopt a specific plan for the contemplated expansion in order to streamline approval of the Supercenter’s construction and operation. The petition was signed by over 20 percent of the City’s registered voters. The City then prepared a report on the initiative examining its consistency with previous approvals for the expansion pursuant to Election Code sections 9212, and 9214, subdivision (c), and adopted the ordinance. The Tuolumne Jobs & Small Business Alliance sued. The Court of Appeal held in favor of the Alliance, expressly disagreeing with the only published authority on point, Native American Sacred Site & Environmental Protection Assn. v. City of Juan Capistrano.
The issue before the Supreme Court was whether a legislative body must obtain full CEQA review before directly adopting a voter initiative under Elections Code section 9214, subdivision (a). Case law has established that CEQA compliance is not required before a legislative body submits an initiative to voters under section 9214, subdivision (b), and the Court held that the result should be the same where the legislative body adopts an ordinance put forth by voters. In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted that the statutory language of section 9214 makes no mention of CEQA. Furthermore, requiring CEQA compliance would effectively nullify the condensed deadlines in the Elections Code, and the abbreviated report provided for in the Code would be superfluous. CEQA would impliedly repeal contrary Elections Code procedures, and the Court emphasized the strong presumption against repeal by implication. The Court also found that application of CEQA to voter initiatives is contrary to Legislative intent, as Legislative history supported the conclusion that CEQA does not apply to any ordinances enacted by initiative, whether through an election or direct adoption.
Finally, the Court noted that direct adoption without CEQA review would not offend public policy. The possibility that interested parties may attempt to use initiatives to advance their own aims, it stated, is part of the democratic process. If direct adoption of an initiative were to result in the enactment of an undesirable law, voters have statutory remedies available to them.