Colorado

Did the Supreme Court’s Gay Marriage Ruling Just Destroy Colorado’s TABOR Law?

Policy

In its decision regarding the 2008 California ballot initiative that prohibited gay marriage, the Supreme Court ruled this morning that citizens who supported the initiative have no standing to defend it in federal court. Only government officials have that right, the Supreme Court ruled.

Although the case initially appeared to be confined to gay marriage laws in the state of California, namely the “Proposition 8″ ballot initiative which amended the state constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman, the court’s decision opens the door for state officials to ignore laws enacted via ballot initiative, since the voters who passed them now have no standing to defend the law in federal court.

“Once Proposition 8 was approved, it became a duly enacted constitutional amendment,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled. “Petitioners [the citizens who sought to defend the law in court]  have no role — special or otherwise — in its enforcement.”

In other words, if state officials choose not to enforce or defend duly enacted laws, citizens of that state have no right to compel the enforcement of those laws through the federal judicial system. Under the Supreme Court’s ruling, if a state court allows state officials to ignore state laws, or if a federal court overturns those laws, citizens of that state cannot appeal the state court’s ruling in federal court.

“States cannot alter that role simply by issuing to private parties who otherwise lack standing a ticket to the federal courthouse,” Chief Justice John Roberts concluded.

Proposition 8 was placed on the ballot as a constitutional amendment in response to a California Supreme Court decision that enshrined a right to gay marriage via judicial fiat. Specifically, the California Supreme Court ruled that a previous ballot initiative — Proposition 22, which was passed by 61 percent of California voters in 2000 — was unconstitutional. Even though voters responded to the state court’s decision by amending the state constitution, federal courts intervened in 2010, ruling that that the constitutional amendment was unconstitutional.

Colorado’s TABOR law, which stands for Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, was a constitutional amendment enacted via ballot initiative in 1992. It was supported by 53.7 percent of Colorado voters. Similarly, California’s Proposition 8 was also a constitutional amendment enacted via ballot initiative in 2008. It was supported by more than 52 percent of California voters in a state that President Barack Obama won with nearly 61 percent of the vote.

The court’s ruling on Proposition 8 could have wide implications for Colorado’s TABOR law, which places strict limits on the growth of state and local revenues, and constitutional amendments enacted in other states via ballot initiative.

For example, what would happen if both a sitting Colorado governor and attorney general decided together that the state budget needed to be larger than allowed under TABOR? Under today’s Supreme Court ruling, they may be free to ignore the constitutional budget limits, secure in the knowledge that voters have no power to seek recourse in federal court against the refusal of state officials to enforce duly enacted laws. Additionally, if a single federal judge were to rule that Colorado’s TABOR law is unconstitutional, citizens no longer have any standing to defend the law in federal court in the event that state officials agreed with the federal judge’s ruling.

Under the Supreme Court’s Proposition 8 ruling, Colorado’s TABOR law could potentially be permanently invalidated by a single federal judge as long as state officials refuse to appeal the ruling.