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

Binding a Future Legislature

The legislative body may not bind future Legislatures

By Chris Micheli, August 10, 2023 2:55 am

You may have heard around the California State Capitol the following phrase: “You cannot bind a future Legislature.” What does that mean? And does it apply to the electorate, or just the Legislature?

The California Supreme Court, in the case of In re Collie (1952) 38 Cal.2d 396, explained that neither house of the California Legislature may bind its own hands or those of future Legislatures by adopting rules not capable of change. The high court said, “It is the general rule that one legislative body cannot limit or restrict its own power or that of subsequent Legislatures and that the act of one Legislature does not bind its successors.”

This is pretty straight forward because a subsequent Legislature (e.g., in the 2025 California Legislative Session), can change a statute enacted by the 2023 California Legislature. They would do so by enacting a new statute that amends or repeals the previously enacted one.

Does this apply to the voters as well? In other words, can the People of the State of California bind a future legislature? 

Under Article II of the California Constitution, the initiative and referendum are not rights granted to the People, but rather powers reserved by the People in the state Constitution. As a result, the appellate courts in this state, have opined that the People’s reserved power of initiative in the California Constitution is greater than the power of the legislative body. Why is that?

As the courts have explained, the legislative body (i.e., the Assembly and Senate) may not bind future Legislatures. However, by constitutional mandate, unless an initiative measure expressly provides otherwise, an initiative measure may be amended or repealed only by the electorate and, as a result, through exercise of the initiative power, the People may bind future legislative bodies other than the People themselves.

So, while the Legislature cannot bind a future Legislature, the People can bind future Legislatures by their enactments.

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