Georgetown Law
Georgetown Law Library

California Research In-Depth

This State Guide provides an in-depth look at sources of law within the state of California.


California has had two Constitutions. The first Constitution of California was ratified on November 13, 1849, prior to California's admittance into the Union in 1850. California's current constitution was ratified on May 7, 1879 and has been amended over 480 times.

The constitution of California can be amended or revised through:

  • (1) Legislative proposal. This method requires a roll call vote in the Legislature with two-thirds of the members of each house concurring;
  • (2) Convention to revise constitution. To convene a constitutional convention also requires a roll call vote in the Legislature with two-thirds of each house's membership concurring. Any amendment proposed by the convention may then be submitted to the voters at a general election; or
  • (3) Initiative. The electors may amend the Constitution by initiative.
    • To be included on the ballot a Constitutional amendment initiative requires a petition to be submitted to the Secretary of State with the certified signatures of 8-percent of the total vote for all candidates for Governor at the most recent gubernatorial election. As of the November 2012 gubernatorial election the signature requirement is 807,615.
    • An Initiative Statute requires 5-percent of the total vote for all candidates for Governor at the most recent gubernatorial election, or 504,760 signatures to qualify.
    • If the signature requirements are met, the initiative shall then be placed on the next general election ballot held at least 131 days after its qualification or at any special statewide election held prior to that general election.  Cal. Const. art. II, § 8(b).

For a summary of the Initiative process see How to Qualify an Initiative on the Secretary of State web site. There is also a link to the Statewide Initiative Guide for step-by-step information on the statewide initiative process.

A majority of electors must vote to approve the proposed amendments or revisions. If successful, the changes will take effect the fifth day after the Secretary of State files the statement of the vote for the election unless the language of the amendment/revision states otherwise. If conflicting measures are approved at the same election, then the provisions of the measure receiving the highest affirmative vote shall prevail. Cal. Const. art. XVIII, §§ 1-4.

What is the Difference Between an Initiative, a Referendum and a Proposition?

The initiative is the process that allows the electors to propose legislation and compel the legislature or the full electorate to vote on the measure. A referendum is the power of the electors to approve or reject all or parts of certain types of statutes. Both the initiative and the referendum process are methods of direct democracy. Propositions are the proposed legislation for either the initiative or the referendum.

To reiterate, as excerpted from Legal Research in California, 5th ed., KFC74 .H36 2004

"the people of California may directly add, repeal, or amend provisions of the California Constitution or statutes," through ballot propositions. The ballot propositions "are proposed either by the Legislature or by citizens." "Propositions directly from the people are proposed by petitions circulated for the [required] number of voter signatures. Propositions from the Legislature are adopted like other legislative measures." Propositions "propose either bond measures, constitutional amendments, or statutes that change existing statutes previously approved by initiative." Referenda are "propositions that allow the people to approve or reject legislative enactments." Initiatives are "propositions that propose legislative or constitutional changes." pg. 163.

Three informational fact sheets (1) What Are Ballot Propositions, Initiatives, and Referendums; (2) The History of Initiative and Referendum in the United States, and (3) State by State List of Initiative and Referendum Provisions are available through the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a non-profit educational organization that provides explanation of the initiative and referendum. The web site, hosted by the University of Southern California has California specific information on the initiative, popular referendum and legislative referendum.

L. Tobe Liebert, Researching California Ballot Measures, 90 Law Library Journal 27 (Winter 1998). This article explains the ballot measure process with information on locating documents, legislative history and legal challenges to ballot measures. Research tools and publication annotations are provided in appendices.

 Where to Find the California Constitutions and Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention?


The Constitution of California can be found in the following publications:

  • West's Annotated California Codes. KFC30.5.W4. Located in volumes 1, 1A, 1B, 1C, 2, 2A, and 3 entitled "Constitution."
  • Deering's California Codes Annotated. KFC30.5.D4 C665. 4 volumes entitled "Constitution." Deering's is arranged alphabetically.
  • California State Constitution. The site, hosted by the State of California Office of Legislative Counsel, provides access to the Constitution through Keyword and Table of Contents search methods.
  • Westlaw: online version of West's Annotated California Code
  • Lexis:  Filter to California and Statutes & Legislation

The annotated formats provide supplemental notes, historical materials, case law and encyclopedia references to assist in explaining the text of the Constitution.


Earlier versions and commentary can be found in the following publications:

  1. Constitution of the State of California: (As amended and in force January 1, 1927) KFC680 1927 .A4
  2. West's Annotated California Codes KFC30.5.W4. Located in volume 3, pgs. 365-385.
  3. Deering's California Codes Annotated KFC30.5.D4 C665. Located in the 4th volume entitled "Constitution Article XIII -- END," pgs. 479-503.
  4. Edward F. Treadwell, ed., The Constitution of the State of California : adopted in convention, at Sacramento, March 3, 1879 : ratified by a vote of the people May 7, 1879 KFC680 1879 .T73
  5. Joseph R. Grodin, Calvin R. Massey, The California State Constitution: A Reference Guide,KFC680 1879 .A6 G76
  6. Rockwell Dennis Hunt, The Genesis of California's First Constitution (1846-49) JK8725 1849 .H86K150 .N45 MicroK150 .N46 Electronic. 58pgs. Electronic access via Making of Modern Lawdatabase, a 19th century legal treatise that provides a  ,detailed account of the legal status of California from the American conquest to the adoption of the Constitution.Š
  7. Cardinal Leonidas Goodwin, The Establishment of State Government in California, 1846-1850K150 .N455 MicroK150 .N46 Electronic. 374pgs. Electronic access via Making of Modern Lawdatabase, this treatise details the years preceding, during and immediately following the ratification of California‰s first Constitution. Includes an index and bibliography.
  8. Francis Newton Thorpe, ed., The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies. (1909). KF4530 .T46 1909 Electronic. California documents are in volume 1, pgs. 377-462.
  9. William F. Swindler, ed., Sources and Documents of United States Constitutions. (1973-1979).KF4530 .S94. California documents, including a comparative outline of California Constitutions, bibliography and index are in volume 1, pgs. 422-522.


Information on the California Constitutional Conventions of 1849 and 1879 can be found in the following locations:

  • Carl Brent Swisher, Motivation and Political Technique in the California Constitutional Convention, 1878-1879. JK8725 1879 .S82 An analysis of the social and political factors that shaped the creation of California's second state constitution. Bibliographical references are included in "Notes and sources" (pgs. 117-125).
  • Debates and proceedings of the Constitutional convention of the state of CaliforniaKFC680 1878 .A2 1880p A 3 volume record of the second Constitutional Convention in 1879.
  • Records of the Constitutional Convention of 1849, California Secretary of State. California State Archives has PDF versions of the state constitution in both English and Spanish accessible through its web site. Documents that are not available electronically include: the Engrossed copy of the Constitution; the Journal of the Convention Assembled to Frame a Constitution for the State of California, which is a handwritten record of convention proceedings; and Constitutional Convention Papers.
  • Cardinal Leonidas Goodwin, The Establishment of State Government in California, 1846-1850K150 .N455 MicroK150 .N46 Electronic Electronic access via Making of Modern Law. Chapter IV elaborates on the "Call and Organization of the Convention," Chapters V through XI elaborate on the topics discussed during the first Constitutional Convention.
  • Rockwell Dennis Hunt, The Genesis of California's First Constitution (1846-49) JK8725 1849 .H86 1895K150 .N45 MicroK150 .N46 Electronic. Electronic access via Making of Modern Law.Chapter II elaborates on the "Desire for Organized Government, and Congressional Failure," Chapters III and IV discuss the Constitutional Convention to its completion.
  • J(ohn) Ross Browne, Report of the Debates in the Convention of California, on the formation of the State constitution, in September and October, 1849. (1973). KFC680 1849 .A215 1973r. A reprint of the 1850 edition of the proceedings of California's first Constitutional Convention.
  • Myra K. Saunders, California Legal History: The California Constitution of 1849, 90 Law Library 447 (Summer 1998). This article looks at the historical background of the California Constitution of 1849 and the provisions that show the conflict between Anglo-American and Spanish-Mexican legal traditions. The appendix contains annotated bibliographical references to resources on the Constitution, primary and secondary source materials and memoirs and correspondence written during and about the convention.