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Justices Probe Deeply Into Term Limitation

TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

A seemingly divided state Supreme Court Thursday closely questioned both legal friend and foe of Proposition 140 during arguments on the constitutionality of the sweeping 1990 term-limitation initiative.

In an intensive 90-minute hearing, the justices provided few clues on how they will rule in the politically charged case, as they fired hard questions at attorneys on a wide range of issues. Some questions appeared to reflect deep doubts about the measure, but others implied reluctance to thwart the will of the voters who passed it last November.

The initiative, co-sponsored by former Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, limits statewide officeholders and state senators to two terms of four years and state Assembly members to three terms of two years. The measure also reduces the Legislature’s operating budget by 38% and abolishes the lawmakers’ pension system.

Legislative term-limit measures were passed in three other states last year but have yet to undergo major court tests. Backers say similar restrictions could be on the ballot in 20 other states next year.

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In Thursday’s hearing, spectators filled the 120-seat courtroom to near capacity. For the first time ever, the Supreme Court hearing was broadcast live statewide by CAL-SPAN, the nonprofit cable television station.

Joseph Remcho of San Francisco, an attorney for legislators challenging the measure, contended that term limits improperly restricted the right to vote. Together with crippling budget cutbacks, he said, the limits represented a “revision” of the Constitution, which can only be achieved through a legislative ballot measure or a constitutional convention approved by the Legislature.

“We have an initiative here,” said Remcho. “Somebody raises some money, gets it on the ballot and gets 52% of the vote, and now we want to change the very structure of government.”

More opposition to the initiative came from the state Public Employees Retirement System board, represented by Otto M. Kaus, a retired state high court justice and now a Los Angeles attorney. Kaus contended that while the measure could properly limit the lawmakers’ pensions, its elimination of their pension system impaired the right of contract.

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“That’s the difference between a haircut and a decapitation,” Kaus said.

But the initiative received a strong defense from a state attorney representing the state defendants in the case and a lawyer for the sponsors of the measure.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Manuel M. Medeiros said that despite the challengers’ claims, the initiative stopped far short of putting the lawmakers “out of business.” He also defended the right of the electorate to determine the state’s structure of government.

“There’s no federal constitutional right to be a perpetual officeholder,” Medeiros said. “The initiative requires the Legislature be periodically refreshed by new blood--and that’s the kind of Legislature the people have said they want.”

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Jonathan M. Coupal of the Pacific Legal Foundation argued for the sponsors that while terms were limited by the measure, there was nothing that altered the Legislature’s power to pass laws or take other actions--and thus no “revision” or drastic change in legislative authority.

Proposition 14O’s term restrictions simply added to other eligibility requirements of office, such as residency and citizenship, Coupal said, and were just as valid as the term limits on governors and other executive branch members already imposed in 25 other states.

A ruling is due within 90 days, and questions from the court implied the justices could issue a split decision. Knowledgeable attorneys observed, for example, that the justices could well strike down the pension abolition but uphold the rest of the measure.

Another option would allow the court to uphold the term limits--but apply them to consecutive terms, as state attorneys urge, rather than imposing them as a lifetime ban after alloted terms are served, as urged by the sponsors.

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The legislators base much of their case on a unanimous ruling last December by the high court that a “revision” of the Constitution could not be imposed by initiative.

In Thursday’s arguments, both Justices Edward A. Panelli and Armand Arabian asked how the voters could ever hope to impose term limits if they were forced to await legislative action. “They like life the way it is,” Arabian said of the legislators.

Remcho acknowledged the difficulty of enacting such a reform through the Legislature, but said that in a more thorough deliberative process, term limits would probably be rejected as unwise.

Mosk repeatedly suggested that the initiative violated the state Constitution by containing more than a “single subject.” The measure limited terms, slashed the budget and abolished the pension system, Mosk noted. “How can all of that be just one subject?”

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Coupal responded that the provisions were aimed at ending the reigns of “career politicians,” and in a broader context, achieving “political reform.”


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