California Constitution scholar focused “fresh eyes” on reform of state’s political ethics law

610 200 Amber Nelson

David Carrillo, executive director of the California Constitution Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law, and FPPC Chair Jodi Remke (right) discussing the Political Reform Act at a public meeting on reforming the law. (Photo Credit: Angel Cardenas/CA Fwd)

As one of only a handful of scholars who study the California Constitution — one of the longest in the United States — David A. Carrillo knew he had discovered a niche, before founding the California Constitution Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

“The whole intent of the center is to help bring light to the shadows,” said Carrillo.

Carrillo came to the law looking for meaningful work that would always be in demand and provide him with ample opportunity to grow. As he refined his practice over 15 years, he realized that he wanted to think more deeply about the law. “I wanted to go back to school and work on the fundamentals,” he explained.

Fate handed him the perfect opportunity. “I was working on a California constitutional law issue and I couldn’t find what I needed.”

Equipped with four degrees from the University of California at Berkeley — a J.S.D., an LL.M., a J.D., and a B.A. — Carrillo started writing articles and teaching classes as he refined his area of expertise. Then in 2012 he plunged fully into his chosen area by creating the center, which is dedicated to advancing study of the California Constitution and the California Supreme Court.

Since its inception, Carrillo has guided the center as its executive director to create a body of work to support both attorneys and the courts by helping to clarify the law. “The intellectual freedom of an academic lets me approach a problem from whatever direction seems best,” Carrillo said of his experience.

That problem-solving approach would also prove useful when one of his colleagues at Berkeley recommended Carrillo to the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) and California Forward as a potential team leader in a new project to modernize and simplify California's complex Political Reform Act (PRA).

“That’s the mindset I bring to my academic work and I thought the same mindset was needed for the PRA [revisions],” he explained regarding the initial editing stage of the Political Reform Act Revision Project (PRARP). The PRA governs political activity like campaign finance, lobbying and governmental ethics.

Carrillo described revising the state's landmark but difficult-to-navigate political ethics law as “a ballet of rigid rules and freestyle jazz.”

The unique approach of leveraging two teams of law students as editors — one from Berkeley and one from UC Davis — further impressed him. “They all had fresh eyes and new perspectives, and most importantly they weren’t jaded,” he said.

Carrillo began the PRA revision process by asking his students a simple yet very provocative question: “How?” They started with macro issues, like how to organize the several hundred-page document. Should it be topical or chronological? They divided the material, worked on it in rotating committees, and then reviewed each committee’s work as a large group. The teams refined down to the micro level, and the process ultimately involved painstakingly line editing every word. Each step of the way they followed two critical guidelines: first, to do no harm to the original intent, and second, to make the document better.

Throughout the months-long process, each section of the PRA was reviewed multiple times, with each pass scanning for different issues like clarity, structure, grammar, and punctuation. “We had to make some tough judgement calls,” Carrillo said of the project.

But the team knew that those hard calls came with a safety net. “Our work was just the first step in a multiple-stage process,” he said, noting that the public comment periods are just one of several ways in which others will provide input on the final product.

“We tried our level best to bring an independent, fresh perspective and cleaned it the best we could,” Carrillo said. “But we knew that our draft was far from the final word—it was only the starting point for a conversation that ultimately ends with the Legislature.”

With the first round of public comment on the proposed draft closed, the FPPC will begin processing input and creating a new proposed draft. The second round of public comment will begin on December 5. Once all of the input is collected, the FPPC will present a final report to the Legislature.

Now that his role in the PRARP is completed, Carrillo is once again fully focused on his center. “I found my academic goldmine and I plan to keep digging,” he said.


Amber Nelson

All stories by: Amber Nelson