Politicians, being egocentric by nature, sometimes do foolish, even childish, things in their insatiable hunger for attention.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom did a foolish thing last summer when he persuaded the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 1327, which would have subjected makers of guns prohibited by state law to civil lawsuits. It essentially stripped them of their right to defend themselves by making them liable for court fees.
It was patterned on a 2021 Texas law (Senate Bill 8) that made anyone who “who aids or abets” an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy subject to private lawsuits with similar restrictions on mounting a defense.
Newsom more or less admitted that SB 1327 was a stunt aimed at marshalling opposition to the Texas law. The bill even has language that repeals itself if and when the Texas law is overturned in court.
Litigation on the Texas law is underway. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that a lawsuit challenging the law can proceed.
Meanwhile, however, California gun rights groups mounted a legal challenge to SB 1327, and last week, U.S. District Court Judge Roger Benitez, who has issued other pro-gun rights decisions in recent years, blocked the law’s enforcement. His order came with some sharp criticism for making it virtually impossible for targets of lawsuits to defend themselves.
“This court concludes that the purpose and effect of (SB 1327) is to trench on a citizen’s right of access to the courts and to discourage the peaceful vindication of an enumerated constitutional right,” the San Diego judge wrote. “Because the state fee-shifting statute undermines a citizen’s constitutional rights, it is this court’s role to declare its invalidity and enjoin its threat.”
Newsom had once described Benitez as a “wholly-owned subsidiary of the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association” after one of the judge’s previous gun control rulings, but after last week’s decision, he effusively praised Benitez.
“I want to thank Judge Benitez,” Newsom said in a statement. “We have been saying all along that Texas’ anti-abortion law is outrageous. Judge Benitez just confirmed it is also unconstitutional. The provision in California’s law that he struck down is a replica of what Texas did, and his explanation of why this part of SB 1327 unfairly blocks access to the courts applies equally to Texas’ SB 8. There is no longer any doubt that Texas’ cruel anti-abortion law should also be struck down.”
It should be struck down for the same reasons — that it unconstitutionally limits the right to defend oneself against a lawsuit. But whether it will be is not certain.
There are a few differences in the two laws and one big difference in the underlying issues of abortion rights and gun rights. The Supreme Court, in overturning Roe v. Wade, explicitly declared that there is no constitutional right to abortion while the “right to bear arms” is specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights.
Given that difference, and the Supreme Court’s obvious distaste for severely restrictive gun laws, it’s entirely possible that California’s law will be permanently blocked while the Texas law survives, at least in some form.
Whatever the outcome, however, the SB 1327 saga is an exercise in political oneupsmanship that makes a mockery of the legislative process. Passing a law in California with the declared intent of shaming a law in Texas while putting Californians in legal jeopardy is political malpractice.
Newsom and the legislators who voted for SB 1327 should be ashamed of themselves. They should be spending their time on California’s many serious problems, not trying to tell Texas what it should be doing.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.