CA Supreme Court Protects Lawmakers’ Votes Against Frivolous Lawsuits
Same Ruling Narrows Exemption for Lawsuits Filed by Public Agencies
August 11, 2016
The California Supreme Court ruled this week that lawmakers’ votes are protected activity under a California law that discourages frivolous lawsuits. Under this ruling, California law provides greater protection for votes than Federal law—lawmakers’ votes are not protected speech under the First Amendment.
The decision concluded that California law protects votes taken after a public hearing because those votes further lawmakers’ rights of advocacy and communication with their constituents. For protected activity, a lawsuit can be challenged at an early stage of the litigation and if the judge finds that the allegations lack merit, the case will be dismissed, saving public entities and lawmakers the time and expense associated with defending the lawsuit.
Although the ruling will aid the defense of some lawsuits, the ruling also narrowed a public enforcement exemption that makes it easier to litigate certain lawsuits filed by public entities. The court limited the exemption to actions brought both in the name of the people of the State of California and by the Attorney General, district attorney, or city attorney, acting as a public prosecutor. Lawsuits filed by county counsel do not qualify for the exemption. CSAC filed a brief with the Supreme Court, arguing for a broader interpretation of the exemption.
The case before the court, City of Montebello v. Vasquez, is an action brought by the city alleging that former city council members voted in favor of a city waste-hauling contract in exchange for campaign contributions. The court concluded that the exemption did not apply to this action because it was brought in the name of the City of Montebello through private counsel retained by the city.