David R. Carpenter


On the Separation of Powers Challenge to the California Coastal Commission

David R. Carpenter

Since 1976, the California Coastal Commission has been charged with protecting California’s 1100-mile shoreline. The Commission has been both celebrated for protecting California’s coastal resources and denounced for exerting totalitarian control over private property rights and commercial development. Recently, a California appellate court found the Commission in violation of the state constitution’s separation-of-powers doctrine because of the California legislature’s ability to appoint and remove at will two-thirds of the Commission’s twelve members. In a special assembly, the legislature rushed to amend the Commission’s composition and provide the legislative appointees with fixed terms. The California Supreme Court must now determine whether the ad hoc response alleviates the constitutional concerns.

In this Note, David R. Carpenter argues that the California Supreme Court still should find the Commission unconstitutional because of the legislature’s continued ability to appoint two-thirds of the commissioners. Examining two recent California Supreme Court decisions, the Note identifies two approaches to the separation-of-powers inquiry. One approach asks whether the legislature’s appointment power defeats or materially impairs the governor’s inherent authority to supervise the Commission’s executive powers. The second approach, and that taken by this Note, frames the issue primarily in terms of limitations on legislative power and the problems created when legislators operate beyond their statutory role. This Note argues that appointment power enables and encourages legislators to impose arbitrary influence while abdicating their responsibility to make good law. Utilizing principles from public choice theory, this Note argues that separation of powers should guard against “the twin problems” of faction and governmental self-interest. Those concerns are heightened in this case by the scope of the Commission’s authority and jurisdiction,along with the powerful interests it regulates. Instead of minimizing political influence over Commission actions, the appointment structure has had the opposite effect. By enforcing the separation-of- powers doctrine,the California Supreme Court would take an important and principled action that would not destroy the Commission, but rather potentially would improve its integrity and independence.