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A First-Class Housekeeper

June 21, 2004

It's surely not the most flattering image, but the California Law Revision Commission does in fact function a bit like catfish that trawl the bottom of the family aquarium, chewing on algae. Without these bottom feeders, the water in the tank would grow murkier and murkier. And without the 50-year-old Law Revision Commission, California law would long ago have become an impenetrable knot of conflicting statutes and court rulings.

Although most Californians have probably never heard of this small body of lawyers, the Legislature depends on it. The panel suggests reform legislation when newly passed laws create confusion in regard to existing statutes or when state law in one area has become outdated. In the panel's 50 years, the Legislature has adopted 328 of the its 350 recommendations, an extraordinary record.

But the very qualities that have made the commission indispensable -- its nit-picky but essential task and its nonpartisan recommendations -- have made it a soft target for hungry budget cutters.

Earlier this year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger zeroed out the commission's $550,000 annual budget. Legislators, knowing the worth of this workhorse panel, have restored that sum. But when the final spending package hits the governor's desk in coming weeks, he could use his line-item veto power to again eliminate it. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger has left empty four of the seven governor-appointed seats on the panel, leaving the 10-person commission to hobble along with six members and its four staffers.

If the governor does again target the commission, he would kill a special project to untangle conflicting laws aimed at protecting the privacy rights of Californians. Also dead would be an effort to harmonize recent legislation spelling out the rights of condo and homeowner associations versus those of individuals who own units in such developments.

In past years, the commission's recommendations helped clarify who is authorized to make decisions over healthcare and legal matters when a loved one becomes medically incapacitated. The panel also took the yeoman's oar in drafting legislation to merge the state's municipal and superior courts -- an exceedingly technical task that has streamlined California's trial courts and saved tax dollars.

Is it really the housekeeper that we want to get rid of as California tries to clean up its budget mess?

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