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California high court says legislators' votes are protected by free speech rights

California high court says legislators' votes are protected by free speech rights
California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, shown in 2011, argued in a dissent that California officials' public votes are not protected under state and federal free speech laws. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

The California Supreme Court decided Monday that the votes of elected officials are protected free speech.

The state high court ruled in a lawsuit brought by the city of Montebello against three former council members and a city administrator. Montebello contended the officials had violated a conflict of interest law in supporting a garbage hauling contract in exchange for campaign contributions.

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In a 5-2 decision, Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote that voting by an elected official was protected by a state law designed to combat lawsuits that chill free speech. The law allows defendants to bring a special motion to throw out such a lawsuit at an early stage.

Monday's ruling shifts the legal burden from the former city officials to Montebello. The city will now have to show that it is probable the officials violated state law when they handled the garbage contract, which has since been rescinded.

"It is not necessary to sue government officers in their personal capacities to challenge the propriety of a government action," Corrigan wrote.

She said elected officials also may invoke the protection of free speech when sued over a vote "without chilling citizens' exercise of their right to challenge government by suing the public entity itself."

In a dissent, Justice Goodwin Liu, joined by Justice Leondra Kruger, said a legislator's vote is not protected by state and federal free speech guarantees.

"The court's contrary holding will make it harder to enforce civil laws against public corruption," Liu wrote.

Raul F. Salinas, who represented Montebello in the lawsuit, said the case will now return to an intermediate appeals court.

If the city's lawsuit eventually succeeds, the former officials would have to give up campaign contributions from the contractor. Salinas said he believes the money would go to the city.

An attorney for the former city officials declined to comment.

Twitter: @mauradolan

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UPDATES:

5:55 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details.

This article was originally posted at 11:50 a.m.

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