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The Use of Sunset Dates in California Legislation

Expiration clauses are used to allow the legislature to revisit a statute

By Chris Micheli, November 4, 2020 6:14 am

California, like most other states, uses sunset dates in legislation, which has the effect of making the law, once enacted, expire on a specified date. Unless the Legislature enacts another bill to either extend or eliminate the sunset date, the law will expire, or “sunset.” Sunset dates run from one to three years, to as long as a decade.

These sunset or expiration clauses are generally used to allow the legislative branch to revisit a statute to check on how the law has been implemented by the executive branch. Sunset clauses are used primarily by the states, but Congress has only used them sparingly. The federal Patriot Act is often cited as an example of the federal government using a sunset provision.

There are other instances when the Legislature may want a statute to be temporary in application. For example, legislation that is viewed as an experiment or being tried for the first time. The Legislature may want to check on how the law has worked for a few years before making it permanent. Controversial legislation may be established with a sunset date as a possible compromise. The Legislature may choose to give a contested bill an opportunity to prove itself.

A sunset clause may also be appropriate when a law is necessary to address a temporary situation or fulfill a short-term need, such as a state of emergency or a disruption in the economy. And, the Legislature may impose a sunset date to ensure that a review is triggered before the statute will be extended or made permanent.

In California, we usually see sunset or repeal clauses in one of these forms:

“(b) This section shall remain in effect only until December 1, 2020, and as of that date is repealed.”

“(d) This section shall become inoperative on July 1, 2020, and, as of January 1, 2021, is repealed, unless a later enacted statute, that becomes operative on or before January 1, 2021, deletes or extends the dates on which it becomes inoperative and is repealed.”

Sunset or expiration clauses can several purposes and can be found in a number of pieces of legislation each year. They are most often used to force the legislative branch of government to reexamine how the law is being implemented, interpreted, or enforced and then make a determination whether extending the law or making it permanent is good public policy.

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