California voters will have one fewer ballot question to puzzle over in November thanks to a state Supreme Court decision removing an advisory referendum on whether the U.S. Constitution should be amended to overturn the Citizens United decision. The court's action is not only merciful but a blow for good government.
Proposition 49 would have asked the voters to express an opinion — and that's all it would have been — about whether Congress should propose, and the California Legislature ratify, one or more amendments to the U.S. Constitution overturning the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United case. In that ruling, the court held that corporations have a 1st Amendment right to spend unlimited money on independent political expenditures.
We're no fans of Citizens United, which struck down decades of reasonable restrictions on political activity by corporations. But this overly vague ballot measure was not a meaningful response to that decision. Proposition 49 was approved by the Legislature and put on the ballot without the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown, who rightly warned that "we should not make it a habit to clutter our ballots with nonbinding measures, as citizens rightfully assume that their votes are meant to have legal effect." Brown should have had the courage of his convictions and vetoed the measure, but on Monday, the state Supreme Court did the job for him.
The court didn't make a final ruling on whether the Legislature has the authority to put a nonbinding advisory question on the ballot. Instead, it directed Secretary of State Debra Bowen to refrain from placing the measure on the ballot pending a full review by the court. State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), the sponsor of the measure, acknowledged that meant it wouldn't go before the voters this year; he expressed confidence that it would be on the 2016 ballot.
That won't happen if a majority of the Supreme Court embraces the persuasive reasoning of Justice Goodwin Liu in a statement attached to Monday's order. Liu noted that Proposition 49 was "not an initiative or a referendum because it does not propose to enact any law."
The fact is, California's ballots are already crowded with complicated measures, and the last thing voters need is one that sounds like it does something but actually has no effect at all.
Activists who would amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United have adopted a strategy of turning the ballot box into a sort of Gallup poll. Last year, voters in Los Angeles approved a similarly meaningless nonbinding measure purporting to "instruct" members of Congress to support a constitutional amendment. Far from being an exercise in popular sovereignty, Proposition 49 would have been a distraction from the consequential decisions California's voters will be making on election day.