US Supreme Court avoids CA tobacco law, hears housing case

This story appeared in Calmatters

The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. on April 6, 2023. Photo by Elizabeth Frantz, Reuters

California is often at the cutting edge of public policy, so it isn’t all that rare that one of its laws ends up before the nation’s highest court. But that doesn’t always mean the more conservative U.S. Supreme Court is quick to throw out these laws. 

Monday, for instance, the court decided, without comment, not to hear a challenge from the tobacco industry to the state’s ban on flavored tobacco products. 

The case stems from a 2020 law that bans the sale of certain flavored tobacco products and menthol cigarettes. The law was intended to protect kids and teens, who are often the targets of flavored tobacco ads and sometimes start with flavored tobacco products before becoming smokers. 

But quickly after the law was passed, tobacco companies funded and qualified a referendum to overturn the law. The results did not go in their favor, however, as Californians easily passed Proposition 31 in November 2022 and upheld the ban. Within days, R.J. Reynolds and other tobacco companies filed a lawsuit and took it all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has the power to regulate cigarette sales, not individual states.

One case the Supreme Court will consider though, concerns another pressing issue: housing. Today, the court is expected to hear oral arguments about the constitutionality of a “traffic impact mitigation fee” one resident, George Sheetz, had to pay to El Dorado County in order to build a single-family home on his property. The case has major implications for developers who argue that impact fees such as the $23,000 levied against Sheetz are one of the reasons why it’s difficult to construct affordable housing in the state

And a reminder of recent Supreme Court decisions impacting California:

  • Animal welfare: Last May, the high court sided with California voters and upheld Prop. 12, which was approved in 2018 to ban the sale of meat and egg products from farms that do not raise their livestock, including pigs, in spaces that give the animals enough room to stand and turn around.
  • Conversion therapy: The Supreme Court also turned down an opportunity in December to hear a case regarding a Washington state law that prohibits licensed therapists from practicing conversion therapy. California is one of several states with similar bans, which some argue violates First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion.

CalMatters events: The first ones of 2024 are scheduled: Wednesday on voting as part of CalMatters for Learning; Jan. 23 on California’s multi-billion-dollar overhaul of the troubled unemployment benefits system; and Feb. 13 on school battles over book bans and forced outing policies.

Election-year anti-crime bills

Local business advocates hold a strike event aimed at stopping business closures and supporting public safety in Oakland on Sep. 26, 2023.
Local business advocates hold a strike event aimed at stopping business closures and supporting public safety in Oakland on Sept. 26, 2023. Photo by Loren Elliott for CalMatters

One of the sore spots for Democrats running in deep-blue California can be accusations that they’re “soft on crime.”

So attempts to fight off that perception could be one way to look at the anti-crime bills that are being introduced in the first days of the legislative session, which coincides with the 2024 election campaign and with rising public concern about lawlessness. 

Car break-ins and thefts, for example, have been a scourge for California cities, such as Oakland, where one car was stolen for every 30 residents last year. In a rare showing of bipartisanship on public safety, Sens. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, and Brian Jones, a Republican from San Diego, are backing a measure to make it easier to prosecute car break-ins. 

Currently, to prove their car was broken into, victims have to also prove their car doors were locked. Not only does this require victims to testify in court (a hurdle that’s especially difficult for tourists visiting California), but other pieces of evidence such as video recordings, eye witnesses or a smashed window may not suffice. Senate Bill 905, which will be Wiener’s third attempt at introducing similar legislation, aims to close that loophole.

Retail theft has also been at the forefront of the Legislature’s agenda. Rumblings to revisit the controversial Prop. 47 — which voters approved in 2014 — had already preceded this session, with criticism at two separate hearings about retail theft that the measure has made it harder to prosecute shoplifters. 

But it’s not just Republicans raising questions. Last week, Democratic Assemblymembers Carlos Villapudua of Stockton and James Ramos of San Bernardino introduced separate measures that would revise Prop. 47. Villapudua proposed a referendum to change the $950 threshold for shoplifting to be a felony, while Ramos’ bill would increase penalties for shoplifters who have multiple theft-related convictions.

And on Friday, Assemblymember Kevin McCarty told Politico he wants to “see how we can improve upon” Prop. 47. McCarty, a Democrat running for Sacramento mayor, is the new chairperson of the public safety committee, and his willingness to “take a thoughtful look back” on the measure and potentially go “back to the voters,” contrasts with his predecessor, Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat whose thinking on criminal justice came under scrutiny last year.

Four elections for McCarthy’s seat

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, talks to reporters at the Capitol on Oct. 3, 2023. McCarthy says he's resigning from his congressional seat in California two months after his historic ouster as House speaker. Photo by J. Scott Applewhite, AP Photo
Rep. Kevin McCarthy talks to reporters at the Capitol on Oct. 3, 2023. Photo by J. Scott Applewhite, AP Photo

Voters in former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s district will have to vote as many as four times on four different dates this year to pick his replacement.

That’s because of how Gov. Newsom set the special election Monday to fill the seat that McCarthy resigned at the end of 2022. Voters will cast ballots in a March 19 primary and, if no candidate wins a clear majority, a May 21 runoff to fill the seat until next January. Already, voters were set for the March 5 primary and the Nov. 5 general election to choose who will serve the full two-year term starting in January 2025.

Newsom’s office says that county registrars asked that it not be held at the same time as the March 5 primary to keep voter confusion to a minimum.

The entire situation, however, has been confusing ever since McCarthy announced Dec. 6 he planned to leave Congress. Assemblymember Vince Fong, a fellow Bakersfield Republican and McCarthy’s hand-picked successor, had to go to court to get on the ballot after the Secretary of State’s office barred him over whether he could run for two offices simultaneously.

Candidates must file separately for the special election, and all the major ones are expected to do so. The timing means that the winner of the special election — as long as they also finish in the top two in the regular March primary — will get to run as an incumbent for at least several months before the November election. While it’s likely the same winner would emerge in the special and regular elections, it isn’t an absolute certainty, especially with a low-turnout special election. There’s a recent example of different winners, in a state Senate race in 2018.  

And a reminder: Voters statewide are casting four different ballots for the U.S. Senate, but those elections are being conducted concurrently: March 5 and Nov. 5, both for the term between the general election and January 2025, and for the full six-year term that starts next January. Sen. Laphonza Butler, appointed last October by Newsom to the seat after the death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, decided not to run

What critics miss about high-speed rail

June Stanfield, owner of Golden Cuts Barber Shop and Salon, in Fresno Chinatown on Oct. 20, 2023. Business owners are hopeful for a economic change to the neighborhood due to the High Speed Rail station being built. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
June Stanfield, owner of Golden Cuts Barber Shop and Salon, in Fresno Chinatown on Oct. 20, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

With its ballooning multi-billion dollar cost, frequently delayed timelines, and multiple legal entanglements, it’s easy to view California’s high-speed rail project as another example of egregious government waste. But as CalMatters California Voices editor Yousef Baig argues, such a cynical take would be too short-sighted.

Instead, for the people living in the Central Valley, including the city of Fresno — where the first major stretch of track is being built — the project could be transformational. The initial 119-mile segment in the Central Valley, scheduled to carry passengers by 2033, could turn Fresno into a major hub, diversify its economy and revitalize the area. For Fresno residents, business owners and local leaders, the high-speed rail project certainly isn’t a “train to nowhere,” but a big piece of their region’s future.

  • June Stanfield, a Fresno native and small business owner: “Get rid of the negativity because we’ve had negativity in this area for over 50 years already. There’s no room for that anymore. You have to start somewhere.”

But opposition to ambitious public works projects is not unique (before construction even started, the Golden Gate Bridge overcame 2,300 lawsuits), and critics often downplay the upsides to score political points. Opponents, Yousef writes, often fail to account for the changes the state is already undergoing, such as how California’s workforce is being pushed inland as affordable housing becomes more scarce. Eventually, the $128 billion high-speed rail line is supposed to stretch 500 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

And perhaps most importantly, the project has backing from the public: Almost 53% of voters backed the nearly $10 billion bond measure in 2008, and a 2022 poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that 56% of registered voters still support the project. As Ray LaHood, a former Republican U.S. representative and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President Obama put it: “This is what the people want. For politicians to turn a blind eye to what the people want, it’s just not right.”

For more on the high-speed rail’s anticipated impact on the Central Valley, read Yousef’s column.

CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: A Republican, former baseball star Steve Garvey, has a chance to play spoiler in the U.S. Senate race.

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