August 2012

Judicial Review of CEQA Categorical Exemptions from 1997-Present

Jennifer L. Hernandez

This report reviews all California Court of Appeal and Supreme Court decisions that have analyzed categorical exemptions under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) from 1997 through the present. This research was conducted to determine how often the courts uphold agencies' categorical exemption determinations. The database of cases surveyed included all CEQA decisions that mentioned the phrases "categorical exemption," "categorically exempt" or just "categoric" with a root extender in the search term. The report excludes cases that only either mentioned categorical exemptions in dicta or were resolved on other issues (e.g., procedural issues, exempt under a statutory exemption, etc.).

For the most part, courts conduct a two-step evaluation to determine if a project is categorically exempt. The first step considers whether the project fits within one of the listed categorical exemptions. 14 California Code of Regulations Sections 15301-15333. If the court finds that the exemption applies, it then considers whether the project triggers any of the exceptions to the exemptions. 14 California Code of Regulations Section 15300.2. If the exceptions to the exemption do not apply, the court upholds the categorical exemption and the agency is not required to perform any further CEQA review of that project.

Since CEQA's categorical exemptions were created, a total of 43 cases have addressed categorical exemptions, including 21 cases decided after January 1, 1997. The report found that the courts upheld categorical exemption determinations in 10 out of 21 cases (48%).

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