By Rachel DeLetto
The issue of campaign finance reform has been a fiery topic during this presidential election season. But while most average citizens have only their votes to influence change, a coalition of UC Berkeley and Davis law students are working on a project with the potential for real-world impact on California’s democratic process.
Under the guidance of David A. Carrillo, executive director of Berkeley Law’s California Constitution Center, the students — Richard Johnson ’17, Brandon V. Stracener ’16, Anna Tsiotsias ’17, and Misha Tsukerman ’16 from Berkeley, and Olga Bykov, Dana Cruz, and Raina Shah from Davis — are collaborating on a unique mission to rewrite the state’s Political Reform Act (PRA).
Enacted in 1974, the PRA is the body of law that governs political campaigns and election activity in California and is a national model for campaign finance, lobbying and election ethics. In February, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) — the agency that regulates and enforces the PRA — announced that it would undertake an update of the act.
The act has been amended dozens of times, resulting in a sedimentary layering effect that has contributed to a body of law that is “very complex, conflicting, cumbersome and contradictory,” said Phillip Ung, director of legislative and external affairs at the FPPC.
The commission wants to ensure that citizens don’t feel disengaged, Ung said, or choose not to run for office or participate in public service because the laws are so complicated that a candidate has to hire a lawyer to help them comply.
So, the FPPC set out to simplify the act to the level that anyone can read and understand it. But a lot of interested parties are highly invested in the act’s every word, Ung said. To do the revisions internally, involving all the stakeholders, could take months or even years.
The FPPC decided to try something different. “We thought there would be great value in having students from some of the nation’s best law schools, who understand statutory construction, to look at the act with fresh eyes,” he said.
A novel partnership
The result is a novel partnership between a state agency and California’s public universities.
According to Ung, the FPPC believes this relationship can “show other agencies that you can put together a government, nonprofit, and academic partnership that is productive and produce a really strong product while saving taxpayer money.”
On February 18, the PRA revision project was on the official FPPC agenda at the commission’s meeting at the state capitol in Sacramento. The entire student team was in attendance and met with chair Jodi Remke and several members of the commission’s legal staff to discuss the project.
“The University of California attracts some of the smartest students in the world, so I can’t think of a better partner to help rewrite California’s cornerstone public trust law,” Remke said.
Scope of work
The students are conducting a comprehensive review and preparing an initial redraft of the PRA for delivery to the FPPC at the end of the semester. Their role is limited to non-substantive changes to improve language and organization.
According to the FPPC, this involves incorporating provisions that have been adopted by regulation into the act over the last 41 years; reorganizing so that all related provisions are grouped together with clear titles; amending parts of the act that have been deemed inoperative by court order, superseded by voter initiative, or otherwise; and redrafting the act with “plain English,” using simple language and eliminating unnecessary legalese.
The workflow is as it would be in any professional agency or law firm environment. The students work both independently and collaboratively, coming together once a week via conference call to share ideas and discuss the best course of action. Carrillo said this method has resulted in rapid progress because of the wide range of perspectives on problems and creative solutions.
Both Berkeley and Davis students agreed that the collaborative process has been a good learning experience. “Hearing everyone’s perspective and seeing where people have had similar ideas or come up with different ways to approach an issue really exemplifies the benefits of working in a team,” Tsiotsias said.
“The most challenging part has been the sheer scope of this body of law,” said Stracener, pointing to the voluminous amendments and regulations that the team has had to identify, catalog, and distill into something accessible.
Johnson added that the project has built upon typical law school coursework that requires review and interpretation of statutes without an understanding of what it takes to bring a bill to life. “I took for granted how hard it is for the legislature to draft laws in clear ways, while still satisfying the conflicting goals of interested parties.”
Another important lesson has been the challenge of making the language reader-friendly, while maintaining accuracy. Tsukerman said being cognizant of “lawyer noise”—like using “pursuant to” rather than “under”—is a hard habit for lawyers (and law students) to break. “This project is teaching me how to make my writing more clear and effective,” he said.
While there is widespread agreement that this is a needed revision, the new version of the PRA has a long way to go before it lands on the Governor’s desk to be signed into law. After the student team delivers their draft, the FPPC lawyers will review and make their own changes from a practice and enforcement perspective. It will be released to an advisory group of interested parties, then to the public for feedback. The FPPC said it hopes to introduce the revised bill to the legislature in January 2017.
“It could easily get derailed,” Carrillo said. “That would be sad and it’s a real possibility. But that’s not to say that this isn’t worth trying. If some version of our work gets enacted into law, that would be an achievement to be very proud of.”
The Berkeley Law students agreed that even if the draft they prepare does not become the new standard for all public officials in the state of California, working as part of this team has been extremely valuable.
“The insights and perspectives I’ve gained from this project are the kind of lessons I wouldn’t get even in the first few years of practice,” said Stracener. “To work on something that actually affects real people is profoundly rewarding, regardless of the outcome.”