Nonpartisan Vote Challenge Voided : Politics: U.S. Supreme Court reinstates California’s prohibition on party support in local elections.


The Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a challenge to California’s unique system of nonpartisan local elections, reinstating a state constitutional ban on party endorsements in city, county, school board and judicial races.

The 6-3 ruling is a setback for the state’s political parties, which have contended they are weakened by an inability to participate in the vast majority of California’s elections.

Statewide, there are 19,279 elective offices, but only 179 are partisan, lawyers for the California Democratic Party told the justices. The result is that the parties are “silenced” by law in 99% of electoral contests, they said.

In recent years, the Supreme Court generally has been willing to strike down election laws that stifle the free speech of political activists. In 1989, for example, the high court unanimously overturned a California ban on party endorsements before the primaries in partisan, statewide races.

The state’s constitutional ban on party endorsements in local races was overturned last year by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, acting in a San Francisco case. Because many state officials were pleased with the ruling, only San Francisco City Atty. Louise H. Renne appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.


Rather than rule on the free-speech question that the political parties see as the dispute’s central issue, the justices voted to reverse the appeals court ruling on procedural grounds involving the case’s plaintiffs.

The case originated in 1987 when 10 political activists in San Francisco filed suit against the state endorsement ban because it prohibited candidates from citing party backing in their mailings to voters. But during oral arguments before the high court in April, several justices noted that neither a candidate nor a party representative had challenged the law.

To bring a lawsuit in federal court, someone has to suffer a real injury, the court said. Here, because the persons who filed the suit did not suffer a true injury, there is no “live controversy ripe for resolution by the federal courts,” the court said in Renne vs. Geary, 90-769.

Although the case was decided on procedural grounds, the result suits the wishes of the conservative court in one respect. Under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the high court has been loath to allow federal judges to strike down state laws.

Two of the dissenters, Justices Thurgood Marshall and Harry A. Blackmun, said the endorsement ban should have been invalidated on 1st Amendment grounds. The third dissenter, Justice Byron R. White, said he would have upheld the endorsement ban, but disagreed with the reason the court’s majority cited for doing so.

Former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., who recently headed the state Democratic Party and strongly opposes the endorsement ban, said the high court action does not end the dispute over party endorsements and predicted that some candidates would ignore it.

“It is an outrage when insurance companies and paid political consultants can send out endorsements, but official parties cannot. It is amazing in 1991 that we can have that kind of censorship,” Brown said.

Noting that the Supreme Court majority said nothing about the underlying 1st Amendment issue, Brown said: “This leaves the issue wide open.”

Supporters of the ban praised the decision as upholding the wishes of voters. “The winners today are the voters of California,” said San Francisco Deputy City Atty. Dennis Aftergut. “They are the ones who voted to keep the parties out of local elections.”

In 1986, voters amended the state Constitution to say: “No political party or party central committee may endorse, support or oppose a candidate for nonpartisan office.” All city, county, school and judicial offices are nonpartisan in California.

The state’s tradition of keeping parties out of local elections dates from the early 20th Century when railroad barons were seen as controlling both the parties and various levels of government. In 1913, reform Gov. Hiram Johnson succeeded in making most election races nonpartisan so that the winner would owe his allegiance to the voters, not to party bosses.

In recent years, however, many political scientists have joined party officials in saying that California’s parties suffer from being too weak, not too powerful. Party leaders had hoped this legal case would wipe away the “gag” on party endorsements in most elections.