In a victory for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca’s fight against term limits, a Superior Court judge last month struck down a voter-approved ballot measure and this week the county decided not to appeal.
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday against challenging the Oct. 4 ruling by Judge Andria K. Richey. Richey ruled that county voters have no legal authority to impose term limits on the sheriff, whose office is governed by the state Constitution.
The board’s decision ends a three-year fight that Baca had waged against the measure, which would have limited the county’s sheriff to three four-year terms.
In the March 2002 election, voters overwhelmingly supported limits for the sheriff, assessor and district attorney, approving the measure by 61%. In the same election, they approved a separate measure by 64% to limit the terms of the county supervisors.
On Wednesday, Baca called the county’s decision to end the legal fight a “prudent” action that avoids needless costs.
Although he is serving his second term as sheriff, the 2002 measure would have allowed him to run two more times because his first election took place before the term limits were approved.
“It wasn’t necessarily for my peace of mind,” Baca said. “It’s very clear by the law that this cannot be done in the way that it was done.”
The approval of term limits for the county’s sheriff was a significant break with tradition. Before Baca’s first election in 1998, only three men had served as sheriff since 1932.
An opponent of term limits for most political offices, Baca said that such restrictions were particularly damaging in law enforcement.
“It does require expertise, specific to the functions of jails, court security, policing services,” Baca said. “It isn’t just a job that anyone can jump into.”
In the lawsuit, Baca’s lawyers cited a 1979 appellate court decision in which justices upheld a decision that overturned an amendment to San Diego County’s charter that imposed term limits on its elected officials.
Since then, the Legislature has amended California law to allow voters to create term limits for county supervisors but not for other county officials.
Richey’s ruling only applies to the office of sheriff. But Krista MacNevin Jee, who represented Baca in the suit, said the decision could be used to overturn term limits for the assessor and district attorney as well.
County Assessor Rick Auerbach, who is in his second term, said Wednesday that he would seek legal advice before deciding whether to act, but said he supported overturning his office’s term limits.
“I don’t agree with term limits, certainly for the assessor,” Auerbach said. “You want someone in that office who’s a good manager and not someone who’s a good politician.”
But Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said he had no plans to join efforts to overturn limits imposed on his office.
“I don’t think it has a practical effect on me,” said Cooley, who was reelected to a second term in March. “I think what Lee did was a matter of principle and he should be commended for that.”
Jee, Baca’s attorney, said that any effort to create term limits for sheriffs, district attorneys and assessors would require a change in California law to allow county voters to decide the issue.