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California Elections : Affects Nonpartisan Offices : Prop. 49 Prompted by GOP Anti-Judge Drive

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Times Staff Writer

Proposition 49 on the June 3 ballot, which would prohibit a political party from endorsing candidates in nonpartisan races, was prompted by a Republican-backed campaign urging voters not to confirm three justices appointed by a Democratic governor to the California Supreme Court.

In 1982, a group of 100 Republican Party leaders, officeholders and candidates called publicly for a no vote “on Jerry’s judges”--three justices appointed by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.

The Republican maneuver was challenged in a voters’ lawsuit asserting that the state Constitution precludes political parties from supporting or opposing candidates for nonpartisan offices, such as judgeships, where candidates do not declare a party affiliation.

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But the trial court sided with the Republicans, a decision upheld by the state Supreme Court.

Up to the Legislature

Writing for the majority in 1984, Justice Stanley Mosk said that the California Constitution does not prohibit party politicking in the nonpartisan arena. But he also wrote that “ . . . that is a matter for consideration by the Legislature; it, not the judiciary, is the proper body to impose regulations on the conduct of political parties.”

With the issue back in the Legislature’s court, both houses approved a constitutional amendment that placed Proposition 49 on the June 3 California primary election ballot.

Passage of the measure would ban a political party or a party central committee from taking a position on a candidate running for a nonpartisan office. Covered would be judgeships, ranging from municipal court seats to the state Supreme Court, and all city, county and school elections. Ironically, the author of the ballot measure seeking to overturn the Republicans’ court victory is himself a Republican, Assemblyman Richard L. Mountjoy of Monrovia.

But Mountjoy said that any edge Republicans or Democrats might gain by poking their noses into nonpartisan races “isn’t worth the damage that would be done” to California’s political system.

Defeat of Proposition 49 could allow an Eastern political boss-type system--”a Chicago ward state”--to take root in California, Mountjoy charged.

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“I think that’s wrong,” he said in a telephone interview. “The damage to local government would go far beyond any political gain.”

Although Mountjoy vigorously disagrees, some believe that a fundamental constitutional issue is involved.

“Ultimately, this is a very significant First Amendment question,” said Los Angeles attorney John A. Slezak, who successfully represented the Republican case before the state high court, but who is not involved in the Proposition 49 effort.

Mountjoy’s opponents echo the constitutional argument.

Cites First Amendment

In fact, said Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), a leading opponent of Proposition 49, the core issue is “the purest form of political (free) speech you can imagine, and if the First Amendment doesn’t protect that, I don’t know what it protects.”

Stanford law professor Robert Girard, who signed the opposing argument in the California Ballot Pamphlet, agreed there is a First Amendment issue at stake. Other organizations such as newspapers and special interest groups “are permitted to make recommendations” on nonpartisan candidates, he said. If Proposition 49 passes, he argued, political parties would be wrongfully denied the same opportunity.

California’s Democratic Party is organizing against Proposition 49.

Mary Hughes, the party’s executive director, said a “very grass-roots operation” against the measure is being financed through telephone and direct-mail solicitations. But, she added, the issue has “a very low budget” and no television advertising is planned.

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State Republican Party officials said they will not spend any money on a Proposition 49 campaign.

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