On April 23, 2012, the Planning and Conservation League (PCL) filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Assembly Bill No. 900 (2011-2012 Reg. Sess.) (see Conservation League v. State of California, RG12626904 (Alameda Sup. Ct.) available at http://www.cnsenvironmentallaw.com/2012/04/26/Conservation.pdf.) AB 900 requires CEQA litigation challenging eligible projects to skip over the superior court and be heard by the Court of Appeal. PCL argues AB 900 violates Article VI, section 10 of the California Constitution, which provides that “[t]he Supreme Court, courts of appeal, superior court, and their judges… have original jurisdiction in proceedings for extraordinary relief in the nature of mandamus, certiorari, and prohibition.” The lawsuit states that “[b]y requiring CEQA petitioners to proceed with original actions in the courts of appeal alone, AB 900 unconstitutionally dispossesses the superior courts and the Supreme Court of their original jurisdiction over these proceedings. In so doing, despite article VI, section 10’s establishment of original mandamus jurisdiction in all California courts, the bill deprives those CEQA litigants who choose to pursue actions in superior court of the opportunity for merits-based appellate review in the courts of appeal. The bill also categorically denies CEQA litigants the opportunity to take their claims directly to the Supreme Court, should those claims qualify for the Supreme Court’s exercise of original jurisdiction.”
PCL’s lawsuit was filed approximately one month after the Judicial Council of California drafted a letter in opposition of Senate Bill No. 1214 (2011-2012 Reg. Sess.). SB 1214 proposed to expand the types of projects that qualify for the streamlining benefits established by AB 900. In its letter opposing SB 1214, the Judicial Council of California stated that it “did not take a position on AB 900 because of the speed with which the bill moved through the legislative process last year. A variety of concerns about this expedited judicial review process were conveyed informally to the Legislature, a number of which have been addressed. Significant concerns remain, however, which subsequently have been identified more fully during the council’s AB 900 rulemaking process.” Among the concerns identified by the Judicial Council of California in its letter is that “providing expedited review directly in the Court of Appeal for some cases while other cases are subject to original jurisdiction in the superior court… undermines equal access to justice. The courts are charged with dispensing equal access to justice for each and every case on their dockets, without regard to the economic position of the parties. Singling out this special category of cases for such preferential treatment appears at odds with how our justice system has historically functioned.”
In its lawsuit, PCL acknowledges that the Court of Appeal has the discretion to exercise original mandamus jurisdiction over CEQA lawsuits. Even if AB 900 is found to violate Article IV, Section 10, of the California Constitution, courts of appeal may be willing to exercise original mandamus jurisdiction over projects that pursue AB 900’s streamlining benefits prior to resolution of the pending PCL lawsuit.
Written By: Tina Thomas and Chris Butcher
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