California Supreme Court Rejects Ploy to Limit the Legislature’s Authority to Enact Technology-Forcing Statutes

Court rules for the State in challenge to technology-forcing gun control law

In a case I previewed here, the California Supreme Court has been considering a challenge to a gun control law passed in 2007 that required certain new models of guns use a developing technology called “microstamping” that would enable law enforcement to link a spent cartridge back to the gun that fired it.

California State Capitol (daveynin, Flickr)

The gun lobby, represented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), relied on the California Civil Code’s maxim of jurisprudence that the law “never requires impossibilities” to argue the gun control statute should be invalidated on the basis that compliance was allegedly “impossible.” In a bizarre ruling, the California Court of Appeal bought this argument, holding that it would be “illogical to uphold a requirement that is currently impossible to accomplish.”

Far from being “illogical,” statutes mandating outcomes that are impossible to meet with existing technology are the bread and butter of technology-forcing frameworks designed to push the state of the art in health and safety. As my colleague Sean Hecht and I noted in our amicus brief on behalf of California environmental law professors, “requiring manufacturers to develop and deploy new technology more protective of public health than what is currently on the market is not a bug of the technology-forcing system – it is the defining feature.” The Court of Appeal’s opinion would have hamstrung the Legislature by depriving it of one of its most important tools to drive innovation in air pollution control, worker safety, and many other crucial health and safety arenas.

But in a straightforward opinion issued this morning, the California Supreme Court made quick work dismantling NSSF’s far-fetched arguments through basic statutory interpretation. The court held that the maxim was merely an “interpretive aid that occasionally authorizes an exception to a statutory mandate in accordance with the Legislature’s intent behind the mandate,” rather than “a ground for invalidating a statutory mandate altogether.” And, since “[n]either the text nor the purpose of the [gun control statute] contemplates that a showing of impossibility can excuse compliance with the statutory requirement once the statute goes into effect,” the Supreme Court rejected NSSF’s challenge to the statute and reversed the Court of Appeal.

While a relatively dry opinion grounded in statutory interpretation that didn’t address the broader implications for technology-forcing, the court’s decision is nonetheless a clear win for the State, and for Californians.

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Reader Comments

One Reply to “California Supreme Court Rejects Ploy to Limit the Legislature’s Authority to Enact Technology-Forcing Statutes”

  1. Caveat emptor.

    While microstamping gun cartridges may be a laudable goal for gun safety and law enforcement, it is not “impossible to accomplish.” The technology currently exists and is covered by several patents (e.g., US Pat. No. 6886284B2). Therefore, “technology-forcing” in this case does not mandate innovation or development of non-existing solutions to current societal problems. Rather, it forces implementation of an existing technology where social responsibility might otherwise be “impossible to accomplish.”

    Consequently, care should be taken in looking to this case to support the concept of “technology-forcing” to spur development of innovative technologies for environmental protection. The California Energy Commission recently adopted energy efficiency standards that require all new residential construction in California to use solar panels. While this may be a laudable goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, “technology forcing” in this instance mandates usage of a relatively old technology (that struggles to achieve 20% efficiency) and imposes a legal blockade against development of newer and more efficient alternative technologies. Such innovations, by definition, do not currently exist and may not exist for the foreseeable future if builders and homeowners are forced by law to use older, less efficient technologies.

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About Meredith

Meredith Hankins is the Shapiro Fellow in Environmental Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law for 2017-2019.…

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