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California State Assembly Chamber. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for California Globe)

A Short Primer on Special Sessions in the California Legislature

A common misconception is that the Governor can call a special session for any reason

By Chris Micheli, October 8, 2022 8:15 am

The California Legislature can meet in regular, special, or joint sessions. A “session” is the designated period of time in which the Legislature meets. A “joint” session, which can occur in a regular or special session, is one in which both houses (Assembly and Senate) meet for a specified purpose. Due to its physical size, joint sessions are normally held in the Assembly Chamber, such as for the Governor’s annual “State-of-the-State” address.

The Constitution provides the dates of convening and adjourning the regular session.  Other than that, the Legislature has freedom to set its own calendar of meetings and recesses. 

A “special” session is one convened pursuant to a proclamation issued by the Governor. Pursuant to Article IV, Section 3(b) of the state Constitution, “on extraordinary occasions the Governor by proclamation may cause the Legislature to assemble in special session. When so assembled it has power to legislate only on subjects specified in the proclamation but may provide for expenses and other matters incidental to the session.”

A special session can run separately (i.e., outside the regular session) or concurrently with the regular session. Just like in a regular session, officers are elected and rules are adopted. Generally, the regular session house and joint rules, as well as the regular session officers, are simply adopted for purposes of the special sessions. For example, pursuant to Senate Rule 12, the standing committees of any regular session are the standing committees of concurrent special or extraordinary sessions unless otherwise ordered by the Senate.

A common misconception is that the Governor can call a special session for any reason. However, under Article IV, Section 3(b), it is “on extraordinary occasions” that the Governor by proclamation can force the Legislature to assemble in special session. This is also the reason why “special sessions” are formally called “extraordinary sessions”.

Another common misconception is that the Legislature must enact bills when called into special session. While the Legislature must convene the special session once it has been called by the Governor, there is no legal requirement that any legislation be enacted, nor even be voted upon.

However, the state Constitution does limit what the Legislature can consider during a special session — “it has power to legislate only on subjects specified in the proclamation, but may provide for expenses and other matters incidental to the special session.” In Senate Rule 24, for example, it sets forth the requirement that any bill or resolution received at the Senate Desk must be referred to the Committee on Rules which “shall decide whether or not the bill or resolution can properly be considered at the session.”

Aside from the fact that a special session is limited to the subject matter for which it was called, there are no significant differences in legislative process between a regular and special session. However, one important note is the effective dates for bills enacted during a special session are somewhat different than those for a regular session. Pursuant to Joint Rule 50.3, all special sessions are designated in numerical order by the session in which they are convened.

Regular session bills, except the four types of bills that take effect when the Governor signs them, generally take effect on the following January 1. On the other hand, special session bills take effect on the 91st day after adjournment of the special session, which also means that, if the business before the special session has concluded, then the special session should cease so that the 90-day clock can begin running. Note that the four exceptions for bills taking effect immediately (calling an election, budget bills, urgency clauses, and tax levies) also apply in a special session. For example, if a tax levy (e.g., a new tax increase) were enacted during a special session, that tax levy bill would take effect on the day the Governor signed the bill. Of course, like other bills, a tax levy could have a delayed operative date. Nonetheless, the bill would be “on the books” as a new law on the day it was signed into law, even if it were enacted during a special session.

Finally, note that regular sessions of the Legislature, and any special sessions not previously adjourned, are adjourned sine die at midnight on November 30 of each even-numbered year. As such, neither a regular nor a special session will continue indefinitely.

The following is a listing of the number of special sessions held over the past quarter century in the California Legislature:

2021-22 Session:  0

2019-20 Session:  0

2017-18 Session:  0

2015-16 Session:  2

2013-14 Session:  2

2011-12 Session:  1

2009-10 Session:  9

2007-08 Session:  4

2005-06 Session:  2

2003-04 Session:  5

2001-02 Session:  3

1999-00 Session:  1

1997-98 Session:  1

1995-96 Session:  4

Former California Governors Grey Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for California Globe)

Over the past 28 years, there have been 34 different special sessions. During the past six years (or during the past 3 legislative sessions), there has not been a single special session held. Governor Newsom has yet to issue a special session proclamation. Governor Brown issued 5 special session proclamations during his second 8-year stint.

Governor Schwarzenegger issued over 18 special session proclamations during his 7 years in office. Governor Davis issued 5 special session proclamations during his 5 years in office. Governor Wilson issued more than half a dozen special session proclamations during his two terms in office.

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