Publishing Letters to the Journal for Determining Legislative Intent

By Chris Micheli

In order to explain the intent behind a specified piece of legislation, both houses of the Legislature provide a process by which a legislator can publish a letter in either the Assembly Daily Journal or the Senate Daily Journal. This letter from the legislator could explain an ambiguity in the bill or explain the purpose of particular changes in the law, or for other reasons.

In the Assembly and Senate, such a “letter to the journal” is a formal matter. The letter must be on the legislator’s letterhead and signed by that legislator. The general custom and practice of the two houses of the California Legislature is to have the respective leadership staff (both majority and minority parties) review the contents of the letter and determine whether they have any objections to the letter’s contents.

These consultants may request revisions to the journal letter. The Assembly Speaker’s office also reviews and approves letters, as does the Senate President pro tempore’s office. Usually the two Republican Leaders in either house provide a similar review and approval.

If approval is not received by both sides of the aisle, then the legislator can request that the letter be printed in the Daily Journal with a roll call vote of the house. If that occurs, then a majority of the legislators in the respective house (41 of the 80 Assembly Members or 21 of the 40 Senators) must vote to approve the printing of the letter. So, while letters to the journal usually are printed with unanimous consent in the respective house, ultimately that is not necessary as only a majority of the house must approve it.

The Assembly letters authored by an Assembly Member are addressed to E. Dotson Wilson, Chief Clerk of the Assembly, while the Senate letters authored by a Senator are address to Danny Alvarez, Secretary of the Senate.

In the Senate and Assembly, if the letter is approved, then a motion is made by the Majority Leader to have the letter printed in the respective house’s journal with unanimous consent. If there is not approval from both sides of the political aisle, then a simple majority vote in required.

The appropriate policy and/or fiscal committee staff handle the requests to print letters in the journal. Under normal circumstances, a letter to the Journal based upon an Assembly Bill is published in the Assembly Daily Journal while a letter based upon a Senate Bill is published in the Senate Daily Journal.

Letters to the journal are sometimes used when no further amendments to a bill are going to be made and are used to address lingering concerns with bill language. Sometimes the courts give weight to these letters are being probative of legislative intent. Different versions of bills, committee and floor analyses, and the Governor’s enrolled bill reports are given greater weight. Nonetheless, a Journal letter may be the best indicator available regarding the intent of the bill’s author.

Although some courts prefer to consider documents provided to all legislators as being indicative of legislative intent, these journal letters from a bill author are good indicators because the author is the legislator most intimately involved in a bill and, as a result, a letter from that legislator should be given more weight by the courts in trying to determine legislative intent.

Chris Micheli is a Principal with the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor at McGeorge School of Law in its Capital Lawyering Program.


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