Atty. Gen. Harris seeks to halt 'reprehensible' anti-gay ballot measure

Kamala Harris calls the anti-gay ballot measure she's trying to stop 'reprehensible' and unconstitutional

The state attorney general has asked for a court order allowing her to halt a proposed ballot measure that would authorize killing gays and lesbians, saying it was both "reprehensible" and unconstitutional.

Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris is required by state law to give all proposed ballot measures a formal name and summary before the signature-gathering process. But on Wednesday, Harris said she would ask the courts to let her essentially ignore the so-called "Sodomite Suppression Act," which was filed by a Huntington Beach attorney.

"This proposal not only threatens public safety, it is patently unconstitutional, utterly reprehensible and has no place in a civil society," Harris said in a statement.

Harris filed an action for declaratory relief with the Sacramento County Superior Court, her office said.

If the court does not grant her request for declaratory relief, Harris said, she will be "forced to issue a title and summary for a proposal that seeks to legalize discrimination and vigilantism" and let the signature-gathering process begin.

The proposed initiative by attorney Matthew McLaughlin has been met by a firestorm of anger and has tested the limits of California's normally liberal attitude of putting even the most extreme ideas on the ballot if enough signatures are collected.

For a fee of $200, McLaughlin submitted a proposed initiative that authorizes the killing of gay people by "bullets to the head" — or "any other convenient method." But to get onto the November 2016 ballot, McLaughlin and any supporters he has would have to collect more than 365,000 signatures in 180 days, a high bar even for well-financed efforts.

Though the proposal is considered an incredible long shot, lawmakers said the proposed ballot measure is so repugnant that it underscores the need for the state's initiative process to be reformed.

Charles H. Bell, a Sacramento attorney who has worked on initiatives, said that Harris may get some relief from the courts and that it is "appropriate to go to court to seek such authorization." The proposal, he said, is not likely to withstand a court challenge.

"Unconstitutional is about the mildest adjective you can use in connection with this outrageous proposal," he said.

State Assembly Speaker Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego) applauded Harris' effort, saying the "proposal represents either the depth of bigotry and hatred or the height of sick publicity stunts." Atkins urged the court to grant the attorney general's request "and prevent the state's initiative process from being abused in this egregious manner."

McLaughlin, whose listed address with the state bar is a postal box at a Beach Boulevard strip mall, has been all but invisible since the story about the proposed ballot measure broke. Court and voter registration records show that he most recently lived in downtown Huntington Beach and worked from home. A resident at that home said McLaughlin no longer lives there.

The attorney appears to have filed few notable lawsuits and, according to a now-disabled Web page, specialized in services such as bankruptcy claims and contract negotiation. In 2012, he donated $500 to Costa Mesa Councilman Steve Mensinger's reelection campaign, and years earlier he drafted an initiative that would have allowed the Bible to be used as a textbook.

McLaughlin also holds a real estate broker license.

Orange County court records show that McLaughlin has more frequently been named in lawsuits than brought them on behalf of clients. A 2006 civil suit alleges he failed to fully pay off $60,000 in student debt from George Mason University law school, as well as promissory notes for another $17,000. The suit says collectors made 41 futile attempts to serve him with a court summons at his home address.

A court document filed in September 2006 said that McLaughlin appeared to be evading collectors.

McLaughlin later fired back in court documents, disputing the assertion that collectors, or "hapless process servers," as he described them, had come to his home.

"This kind of behavior is sickening," he wrote.

An online petition at change.org calling for McLaughlin to be disbarred had more than 45,000 signatures Wednesday.

This month, the California Legislature's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus filed a formal complaint against him with the State Bar of California, asking that he be investigated. On Wednesday, the caucus applauded Harris' efforts to stop McLaughlin's proposal, which, members said, threatens "progress toward equality we have made in this great state."

Jim Key, a spokesman for the Los Angeles LGBT Center, said the "outrageous" proposed initiative and McLaughlin "have already had more than their 15 minutes of fame."

emily.foxhall@latimes.com

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Patrick McGreevy and Joseph Serna contributed to this report.

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