We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to. We decline to do so for the first time here.There was some argument that there needed to be a way for the results of the state's initiative process to be defended when the state's elected officials didn't like those results, as happened with Prop 8. The dissenting opinion said the majority "disrespects and disparages" this political safeguard that is part of California law. The Chief's answer was the state can have its law, but it doesn't have power to change the federal law of standing that limits federal courts.
[T]he fact that a State thinks a private party should have standing to seek relief for a generalized grievance cannot override our settled law to the contrary.In other words, separation of powers beats federalism. Not always, but here, where the separation of powers is a matter of federal constitutional law, and the federalism interests are only policy concerns.
The Article III requirement that a party invoking the jurisdiction of a federal court seek relief for a personal, particularized injury serves vital interests going to the role of the Judiciary in our system of separated powers.
The dissenting opinion is written by Justice Kennedy and joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor:
The very object of the initiative system is to establish a lawmaking process that does not depend upon state officials. In California, the popular initiative is necessary to implement “the theory that all power of government ultimately resides in the people.”...Roberts's opinion acknowledges all that, but it's simply policy analysis, and federal standing doctrine has — for a long time — rejected arguments that come in the form of if these plaintiffs can't sue, an important legal issue cannot be raised.
The California Supreme Court has determined that this purpose is undermined if the very officials the initiative process seeks to circumvent are the only parties who can defend an enacted initiative when it is challenged in a legal proceeding.
I'm particularly unsympathetic to this argument in the context of needing to defend the results of the initiative process. Long ago, the Supreme Court had a case challenging the initiative process as a violation of the Article IV guarantee of a "Republican Form of Government" to every state. In that case, Pacific States Telephone & Telegraph v. Oregon (1911), the Court said it could not reach the substantive merits of the question because of the so-called "political question" doctrine — which, like standing, is a justiciability doctrine about the power of the federal courts.
It would be ironic if reverence for the initiative leveraged these plaintiffs past the normal limits on judicial power, since it was a limit on judicial power that prevented us from ever finding out whether lawmaking by initiative — rather than in a deliberative body of elected representatives — is unconstitutional.
Justice Kennedy ends his dissenting opinion saying:
The essence of democracy is that the right to make law rests in the people and flows to the government, not the other way around. Freedom resides first in the people without need of a grant from government. The California initiative process embodies these principles and has done so for over a century.That's interesting political philosophy about democracy, but the people also made the federal Constitution, which is superior to state law, and which has that guarantee of a republican form of government. So let's not get too sentimental about direct democracy. If we want to get back to first principles, let's talk about republicanism.
(Here's Erwin Chemerinsky's article "Why Cases Under the Guarantee Clause Should Be Justiciable," which was part of a symposium at the University of Colorado Law School in 1994, back when there was a challenge to an initiative in Colorado that barred laws protecting gay people from discrimination. I was there too and wrote a response to Prof. Chemerinsky — here's my "Time for the Federal Courts to Enforce the Guarantee Clause?" — saying that if the Supreme Court felt motivated enough about this challenge, before it would change the justiability law about the Guarantee Clause, it would find the right it needed in the Equal Protection Clause. And that, by the way, is exactly what the Court proceeded to do, in Romer v. Evans — a case written by, of all people, Justice Kennedy.)