Marine Forests Society v. California Coastal Commission
05 CDOS 5501 S113466 (Supreme Court of California, June 23, 2005)

By Michael B. Wilmar

In Marine Forests Society v. California Coastal Commission, the Supreme Court of California unanimously held that the current California Coastal Act (CCA) provisions governing the membership structure of the California Coastal Commission do not violate the California Constitution’s separation of powers clause. After the lower courts enjoined the Coastal Commission from performing its functions and pending review of this decision by the Supreme Court, the Legislature passed an emergency measure to amend the challenged provisions of the CCA. Under the amended provisions, a majority of the Commission’s voting members were still appointed by the Legislature but members were no longer removable at the pleasure of the Legislature.

The Marine Forests Society argued that the California separation of powers clause categorically precluded the Legislature from appointing executive officers and, in the alternative, the amended provisions impermissibly authorized the Legislature to usurp the functions of the executive branch. While the Court held that the state separation of powers clause does not preclude all legislative appointments of executive officers, the Court recognized limits on such exercise of legislative power.

The Court stated the standard as follows: “[T]he separation of powers clause precludes the adoption of a statutory scheme authorizing the legislative appointment of an executive officer or officers whenever the statutory provisions as a whole, viewed from a realistic and practical perspective, operate to defeat or materially impair the executive branch’s exercise of its constitutional functions.” The Court explained that this standard is met in at least two circumstances:

1) where a statute allows the legislative appointment to “improperly intrude upon a core zone of executive authority”; or

2) where a statute, taken as a whole, permits the legislative appointing authority to retain “undue legislative control” over the executive officer.

Applying this standard, the Court found that the current membership structure does not violate the state separation of powers clause. To reach this conclusion, the Court looked to the membership structure set forth in the amended provisions, the nature of the Coastal Commission, and the statutory safeguards within the CCA designed to ensure that Commission members are not improperly interfered with or controlled by the Legislature.

For more information please contact Michael Wilmar. Michael B. Wilmar is special counsel in the Real Estate, Land Use and Natural Resources Practice Group in the firm’s San Francisco office.