Thankfully, the court’s order will not invalidate ballots that have already been cast or are currently en route to polling locations.
A Sutter County judge ruled that California Gov. Gavin Newsom overstepped his authority in ordering that absentee ballots be sent to the state’s 22 million registered voters.
According to The Los Angeles Times, Sutter County Superior Court Judge Sarah Heckman also issued an injunction prohibiting the governor from taking executive actions that may “[change] existing statutory law or makes new statutory law or legislative policy.”
Heckman’s ruling, says the Times, serves as a major rebuke to Gov. Newsom.
Newsom, like many other Democratic governors across the United States, has made extensive use of his office’s executive powers to issue orders intended to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic. Many of Newsom’s more recent orders were meant to expand electoral access during a year voters may not feel comfortable visiting polling locations in person.
However, Heckman said that Gov. Newsom’s order—which required California to send vote-by-mail ballots and instate other coronavirus-related precautions—violated the state constitution, because the governor’s actions effectively created a new series of laws.
Under the California Constitution, only the state Legislature has the power to create laws.
Judge Heckman further noted that the law cited by Newman—the Emergency Services Act, or ESA—only grants the governor authority “to suspend certain statutes, not to amend any statutes or create new ones.”
But Heckman’s decision does not mean that California voters who have already voted by mail will see their ballots invalidated or tossed out. Since the state Legislature later passed a law codifying many of Gov. Newsom’s executive actions, Heckman’s ruling will not affect the upcoming election.
The Los Angeles Times adds that, even in spite of Heckman’s rebuke to the governor’s claimed powers under the ESA, legal experts do not expect the injunction to impact Newsom’s other orders on social distancing or mandatory mask usage.
Heckman’s decision has since been praised by the Republican legislators who filed suit against the governor, James Gallagher (R-Yuba City) and Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin).
“This is a victory for separation of powers. The governor has continued to create and change state law without public input and without the deliberative process provided by the Legislature,” the two said in a statement. “Today the judicial branch again gave him the check that was needed and that the Constitution requires.
“Nobody disputes that there are actions that should be taken to keep people safe during an emergency,” they continued. “But that doesn’t mean that we put our Constitution and free society on hold by centralizing all power in the hands of one man.”
Gallagher, notes the Enterprise Record, was quick to reiterate that his lawsuit was non-partisan, intended only to curb gubernatorial overreach rather than personally attack Newsom.
“This was never political, it was never partisan,” he said. “This ruling will affect whoever is governor, not just this governor, but those in the future; that’s the key thing. It’s about respecting the balance of power and the fundamental separation of powers that is fundamental to our government.”
“No matter who is governor in the future,” Gallagher said, “this precedent will govern their actions. I think everyone should celebrate that. That fundamental line was drawn in the sand today.”