Appeals Court Leans Against Term Limits : Elections: If ruling is upheld in La Palma councilman's case, laws in Dana Point and Villa Park also could be struck.


La Palma City Councilman Richard Polis left the courtroom Friday optimistic that the state appeals court will allow him to remain on the Nov. 3 ballot.

"My opinion is this hearing should never have been held," Polis said after the three-member appeals court panel seemed to side with his position that cities such as La Palma may not limit the number of terms council members serve.

Polis, who is trying to run for a third term on the council despite a city law limiting council members to two terms, won a Superior Court ruling in July that said La Palma's law was unconstitutional. But Polis' colleagues on the council voted to appeal that ruling, leading to Friday's hearing.

Justices on the 4th District Court of Appeal heard oral arguments for and against term-limit laws, and promised to issue a ruling before the Nov. 3 election. From the tenor of the hearing, the justices indicated that they were unlikely to overturn the Superior Court ruling.

Term limits would deprive voters of the chance to cast ballots for well-qualified candidates, Associate Justice Edward J. Wallin said.

"I hope this doesn't apply to brain surgeons," Wallin said. "After gaining experience, people say, 'I'm sorry, your term is up. We need to get (surgeons) right out of medical school.' "

The case is being watched by several Orange County cities that have term-limit laws or are considering them.

State law requires council candidates to be registered to vote and live in the cities in which they pursue office. Most of the legal arguments Friday revolved around whether the Legislature meant to prevent cities from adopting further requirements.

In 1989, an appeals court in San Francisco ruled that cities without state charters may not place additional requirements on candidates to run for local office. Charters allow cities to adopt some laws that conflict with state law, although most cities in California lack a charter, including La Palma.

The lower-court judge in Polis' lawsuit cited the San Francisco appeals court ruling when he struck down La Palma's 1982 term-limit law.

Although state law does spell out the qualifications for local office, the San Francisco appeals court made a mistake, said John L. Fellows, La Palma's special city attorney. Courts should not interpret state candidacy requirements as preventing cities from setting others, Fellows said.

But Wallin and Chief Justice David G. Sills questioned the wisdom of allowing cities to create additional qualifications for office. If the court ruled for La Palma, Sills said, that could pave the way for other cities to require that council members own property or have college degrees.

"What if the city decided to change its form of government and decided they wanted a king?" Wallin said.

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