State High Court Asked to Overturn Term Limits : Proposition 140: The broad legal assault is backed by Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

The state Legislature launched a broad legal assault Thursday on Proposition 140, asking the California Supreme Court to strike down the landmark term-limitation measure as unconstitutional.

A suit backed by Democratic and Republican lawmakers said the initiative's tight restrictions on terms and sharp cutbacks in legislative staff and operating budgets had gravely damaged the Legislature's ability to function as a separate branch of government.

Supporters of the initiative, passed by 52% of the electorate last November, rejected the legal claims in the lawsuit and said they would urge the justices to refuse to hear the case.

Proposition 140, co-sponsored by Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, was offered by backers as a way to trim what they saw as excessive concentrations of legislative power, bloated and expensive staffs and an extravagant pension system.

Most prominently, the measure limited statewide officeholders and state senators to two terms of four years each and Assembly members to three terms of two years each.

The measure also imposed restrictions on legislative operational costs that thus far have forced about one-fourth of the Legislature's 2,500-member staff to leave their jobs--most with severance pay--and have cut back operational expenditures by nearly 40%. Another provision stripped legislators of their pension system.

The Legislature's suit cites five grounds for overturning Proposition 140 in its entirety, contending that the measure:

Amounts to a revision--rather than an amendment--to the state Constitution that may be imposed only through the Legislature or a constitutional convention. The loss of experienced lawmakers and staff and budget cutbacks dramatically weakens the legislative branch.

The state high court last December invalidated a key portion of Proposition 115, the anti-crime initiative passed last June, on grounds that it amounted to a constitutional revision.

Violates the right of free speech and association by imposing a lifetime ban on officeholders after their term limits have expired, improperly denying citizens the ability to vote for whom they wish.

Illegally aims to punish a group of people without trial by trying to drive Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown Jr. (D-San Francisco) and Senate President Pro-Tem David Roberti (D-Los Angeles) from office. Ballot materials said the initiative would end the reign of both.

Interferes with the right of contract by eliminating retirement benefits for incumbent legislators.

Violates a state constitutional prohibition against initiatives that contain more than a single subject. Term limits and budget reductions bear no relationship to the cancellation of retirement benefits.

The suit, filed by San Francisco attorneys Joseph Remcho and Robin B. Johansen, was brought in behalf of the Legislature, Roberti, Brown and Senate Minority Leader Kenneth Maddy (R-Fresno); the California Teachers Assn.; Black American Political Assn.; the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and numerous individual legislators from both parties.

As customary, the suit names as defendants state officials who are required to enforce the measure. They will have five days to say whether they believe the court should hear the case. If the court grants a review, briefs will be filed and a date set for argument.

Remcho noted that the justices also could refer the case to a lower court, but expressed hope, because of the urgency of the case, that the high court would resolve the issue soon.

Earlier this year, the rules committees of the Senate and Assembly voted to authorize the suit but required that no tax monies be used in the process. Legislative leaders reported they had raised about $300,000--much of it from campaign funds--of the $500,000 in legal fees they estimated will be needed to contest the initiative. Backers of the initiative said they would conduct a similar fund-raising campaign to defend the measure.

While the Legislature's decision to challenge Proposition 140 is rare, Remcho said it is not unprecedented. At least three times in the last decade the Legislature has voted to seek court review of initiatives and other measures.

The suit filed Thursday drew immediate criticism from Lewis Uhler, president of the National Taxation Limitation Committee and co-sponsor of Proposition 140, as "another episode of the Keystone Kops."

"This suit underscores once again why the people approved Proposition 140," Uhler said. "The Legislature, and all the sycophants who surround it and have their hands in its pockets, have joined hands to say the people don't have the right to set the conditions of employment for their elected representatives."

Attorney Jonathan M. Coupal of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which will represent the sponsors of Proposition 140, said he will urge the court to decline to review the case.

Coupal noted that term limits are well-established throughout the country, ranging from the two-term limit imposed on the President of the United States to the assorted restrictions that 25 states impose on statewide officeholders.

"We already impose qualifications on eligibility for office--such as residency requirements," he said. "This has nothing to do with the scope of legislative power."

Along with the suit, attorneys for the Legislature included a series of written declarations from a wide range of officials, analysts and academicians citing what they said would be adverse effects if Proposition 140 is upheld.

Former Democratic Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown cited the need for "legislators of great experience" in the process of government. He maintained that, had the measure been in effect when he was governor, he would have been able to exercise broader powers. But, he said, "the state is better because of the checks the Legislature placed on me, on my predecessors and my successors."

Speaker Brown said the resulting loss of 441 staff members had dealt incalculable damage to the Legislature. Roberti said that if the court strikes down the initiative, the Legislature could begin to repair the damage and enter into budget negotiations "with some measure of its power and ability" before the measure was passed.

Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) said that the reduction in staff had forced a disproportionate reliance by legislators on the executive branch and special interests and reduced lawmakers' contacts with constituents.

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