The California Supreme Court on Thursday invalidated an unusual term limits ballot measure that state voters narrowly approved last year even after its proponents had acknowledged that it was unconstitutional.
The ruling came as no surprise, but the short-lived measure may have had a major impact on the only legislative race in which it was enforced.
Known as the "scarlet letter" law, Proposition 225 directed all legislative and congressional candidates to pledge support of a U.S. constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms.
Backers of the proposition, pessimistic about its future after court rejections of similar measures in other states, tried to remove it from the ballot before the June election. But the California Supreme Court, citing the late timing of their petition, declined to lift it.
The proponents then urged voters in election pamphlets to defeat the measure on the grounds that it probably would be found unconstitutional and result in "needless and costly litigation." The proponents, affiliated with a national group called U.S. Term Limits Foundation, indicated they would put another term limits measure on a future ballot.
Nearly 53% of voters approved Proposition 225 anyway. It was enforced only in a special state Assembly race that was viewed as a major upset. In that race, former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, a Democrat, lost by 300 votes to Green Party candidate Audie Bock. She was the first Green Party candidate ever elected to the state Legislature.
The ballot measure said that if a candidate refused to support the term limits, his or her name would be accompanied by a ballot statement that said, in capital letters: "DISREGARDED VOTER INSTRUCTIONS ON TERM LIMITS" or "DECLINED TO PLEDGE TO SUPPORT TERM LIMITS."
Bock favors term limits, while Harris' name appeared on the March 30 special election ballot with the statement that said he declined to support them. The Alameda County Assembly race, to fill a seat that had become vacant, was the first in which the proposition was enforced. It was scheduled to be applied statewide in the March 2000 primary.
Michael Twombly, an assistant to Bock, said Thursday that the statement probably helped defeat Harris. "Did 300 people think that was an important thing?" he asked. "Probably."
Although it appeared doomed from the start, the measure nevertheless cost a considerable amount in legal fees and time spent by the state attorney general's office, which had to defend it on behalf of Secretary of State Bill Jones, and the California Supreme Court.
Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, says the proposition is an example of why he believes initiatives should not be enforced unless they receive at least 60% of the vote.
"People would then not yield to the tendency of using the initiative process for frivolous or partisan purposes," said the director of the nonpartisan research group based in Washington. "I don't think California has been helped by the initiative process."
In its unanimous decision, the state Supreme Court said the proposition violated Article V of the U.S. Constitution because it attempted to usurp the authority given to legislators and members of Congress in the federal constitutional amendment process.
Article V grants exclusive power to propose and ratify U.S. constitutional amendments to Congress, state legislatures or constitutional conventions, Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote for the court.
The article "does not authorize such amendments either to be mandated or defeated by a direct vote of a state's electorate through an initiative or referendum," George concluded.
The court issued an order directing Secretary of State Jones not to enforce the proposition. Jones had expressed doubts about the measure's constitutionality but said he was required to apply it unless told otherwise by a court.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Leslie R. Lopez, who represented Jones, expressed no surprise at the state high court decision but declined to comment further.
Sacramento lawyer George Waters, who represented the petitioners, said he had racked up more than $50,000 in legal fees in the case.
"It is not a whole lot compared to what similar litigation could have cost," he said.
Waters praised the court for acting quickly on the case. He said the measure was put on the state ballot along with similar measures in other states as part of a concerted effort by nationwide supporters of congressional term limits.
A spokesman for the U.S. Term Limits Foundation in Washington could not be reached Thursday for comment.