Everyone in California is working remotely these days—except the state legislature. Back in March, the California legislature almost decided to adopt a remote meeting procedure, when the state Senate voted to meet remotely. But the state Assembly leadership demurred, and so (other than returning briefly last month to pass the state budget bill) the legislature has been inert for months. That may have been the right call initially, but as the pandemic grinds on everything in California has been forced to evolve into an online process. About 24 other state legislatures are already doing (or working on doing) some remote work. Even Guam and the Virgin Islands figured out how to change their procedures to allow for remote participation or voting, as have many local governments in California. If everything happening remotely is our new long-term reality, why is the California legislative process on hold?
Is there some constitutional objection? Not that we could find. Start with the principle that the California legislature is plenary, limited only by the state and federal constitutions. The California Supreme Court has held that “it is well established” that the California legislature “possesses plenary legislative authority except as specifically limited” by the state constitution. We scoured the California constitution for some bar to remote legislative work, or a requirement that legislators meet in person at every peril. Nothing in the state constitution directly speaks to those questions, so the general principle controls: absent some constitutional prohibition, the state legislature can do the smart thing here and meet remotely.
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