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California State Capitol. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for California Globe)

General Versus Special Statutes

Being aware of the general rules can be helpful

By Chris Micheli, November 18, 2019 6:08 am

Most Capitol observers do not often come across bills that delineate between general or special statutes. What is a general statute versus a special statute?

A general statute is essentially a law that pertains uniformly to an entire community or all persons generally. On the other hand, a special statute is essentially a law that applies to a particular person, place, or interest. California law provides for both types of statutes.

California’s Constitution in Article IV, Section 16, provides “(a) All laws of a general nature have uniform operation. (b) A local or special statute is invalid in any case if a general statute can be made applicable.” As a result, general statutes are the main type and they apply uniformly by their language; however, special statutes can be pursued so long as a general statute would not apply in the particular circumstance.

Working with the bill author, the Office of Legislative Counsel will make a determination whether a special statute will pass constitutional muster and, if so, how the bill must be drafted. The initial determination is whether the proposed legislation can be addressed by a bill of general application. If not, then a special law would be required.

With a special statute bill, a reader may see the following language in the measure:

“The Legislature finds and declares that a special law is necessary and that a general law cannot be made applicable within the meaning of Section 16 of Article IV of the California Constitution because of ___.”

Thereafter, the bill must contain an explanation of the special nature of the bill and why a bill of general application will not work in these particular circumstances. An example of this explanatory language could be (taken from a prior bill):

“The unique island location of the City of Coronado and its proximity to large military installations requires a special law. In addition, the complexities of amending a general plan and a local coastal plan for the City of Coronado will take significantly longer than six months. As a result, a general law cannot be made applicable.”

Although special statutes are not common, being aware of the general rules can be helpful when you need such a bill.

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