In People v. Rojas, the Supreme Court today holds that applying to a voter initiative the Legislature’s subsequent narrowing of a definition that the initiative had incorporated was not unconstitutional. That needs a little unpacking.

Proposition 21, passed in 2000, made defendants eligible for increased punishment, including the death penalty, if they were gang members who committed murder “to further the activities of the criminal street gang” and it incorporated the definition of “criminal street gang” in Penal Code section 186.22(f). It also limited amendments of its provisions to changes approved by the voters or by two-thirds of each house of the Legislature. (See Cal. Const., art. II, section 10(c) [“The Legislature may amend or repeal an initiative statute by another statute that becomes effective only when approved by the electors unless the initiative statute permits amendment or repeal without the electors’ approval”].) In 2021, the Legislature passed — by less than two-thirds votes — Assembly Bill No. 333, which circumscribed the “criminal street gang” definition.

Resolving a split in the Courts of Appeal, the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Goodwin Liu holds applying the amended definition to determine increased punishments isn’t a prohibited amendment of the 2000 initiative. “Of course, it is the electorate’s prerogative to give the term ‘criminal street gang’ a fixed meaning if it chooses, regardless of how the Legislature may subsequently define the term,” the court says. “But the voters who enacted Proposition 21 did not specify that the cross-reference to section 186.22(f) was intended to lock in the contemporary definition.” The opinion also concludes, “Assembly Bill 333 does not intrude upon the purpose of Proposition 21,” which “was to heighten the penalties for gang activity and other violent crimes.”

The court reverses a 2-1 Fifth District Court of Appeal partially published opinion.