Saltonstall v. City of Sacramento (11/20/14, C077031)

The NBA owns the right to acquire and relocate the Sacramento Kings if a new arena is not completed and open in downtown Sacramento by 2017. The City and the Kings have targeted an October 2016 opening to avoid this outcome. To facilitate construction, the California Legislature added Section 21168.6.6 to the Public Resources Code to provide for an expedited review of the arena project under the California Environmental Quality Act. Several individuals sued the City and the Kings, challenging the constitutionality of the new provisions of the Public Resources Code, and moved for a preliminary injunction that would stay demolition of the existing shopping center. The Court of Appeal denied the preliminary injunction, holding that the Legislature may limit the CEQA review process under its broad authority to make public policy determinations and amend existing laws.

Section 21168.6.6, which applies only to the Kings arena project, accelerates certain CEQA review deadlines for the project and requires judicial resolution of any legal challenges within 270 days of certification of the administrative record, to the extent feasible. It also limits which factors the court may consider in enjoining construction and permits the court to enjoin only those activities that present an imminent threat to public health and safety or affect certain important historical, archaeological, or ecological artifacts or values.

Saltonstall argued that Section 21168.6.6 constitutes a violation of the separation of powers doctrine under the California Constitution and intrudes upon the core function of the courts. Noting that the court had previously held that the rights derived from CEQA are not constitutional in nature and that the Legislature has the authority to completely eliminate the CEQA requirements for any given project, the court held that the Legislature may also limit which public policy interests may be weighed and considered during judicial review. The court also found that the qualifying language “to the extent feasible” rendered the 270-day judicial review deadline suggestive rather than mandatory, especially since there are no corresponding penalties. The court found that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that Section 21168.6.6 materially impairs the court’s exercise of power and thus Section 21168.6.6 does not violate the doctrine of separation of powers.

Saltonstall also argued that Section 21168.6.6 harms the public by corrupting the CEQA review process. The court rejected this argument, finding that Section 21168.6.6 does not authorize an injunction based on this type of harm. More importantly, the court held that accepting Saltonstall’s argument would result in the untenable conclusion that the Legislature cannot modify or limit the CEQA requirements for a particular project, but would only be able to require a complete CEQA review or none at all.

This case upholds the Legislature’s broad power to not only eliminate the CEQA review process altogether, but to tailor the provisions of CEQA for a particular project.