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Judge says sweeping L.A. criminal justice reform measure is unconstitutional

Protesters gathered in downtown Los Angeles last year for a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has declared that Measure J, which county voters approved last year to set aside public funds for social services and jail diversion programs, is unconstitutional.

In a proposed ruling Thursday, Judge Mary Strobel said the amendment to the county’s charter improperly restricts the L.A. County Board of Supervisors from deciding how and where to spend county funds. Strobel said at a court hearing that she expects to make the ruling final in coming weeks.

The measure, which passed easily, requires that 10% of locally generated, unrestricted county money — an estimated $300 million each year — be spent on services such as housing, mental health treatment and investments in communities harmed by racism. The measure prohibits the county from using the money on prisons, jails or law enforcement agencies.

The current board or any future board, the judge said, could adopt a budget with those spending priorities — but it can’t be forced to.

“The only question presented is whether the ballot process can be used to take this budgeting choice out of the hands of the current and future elected boards,” Strobel wrote in her proposed ruling. “The court concludes it cannot.”

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The challenge to Measure J was brought by the Coalition of County Unions, a group of labor unions that includes the Assn. of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which represents rank-and-file deputies.

Attorneys for the union coalition contended that voters did not have the authority to adopt the measure and argued it impaired the board’s ability to manage the county’s finances. The Board of Supervisors, which chose to put the measure on the ballot, countered that the county charter could address budgeting issues and thus the amendment to it was legitimate.

An attorney for the board indicated at Thursday’s hearing that it would probably appeal the proposed ruling. It was not immediately clear how the ruling could affect the board’s upcoming budget discussions.

Strobel gave lawyers for both sides 15 days to submit more information they want her to consider before she makes the decision final. She instructed the lawyers, however, not to make new legal arguments and indicated that she does not expect her final position to change.

Lennie LaGuire, a spokeswoman for the county, said officials are disappointed by the proposed decision but are “committed to carrying out both the spirit and the letter of voters’ intentions.”

“The county’s position, as argued in court, is that Measure J does not prevent the board from directing the budget or complying with state and federal budget requirements,” LaGuire said in a statement. “There are extensive regulations, restrictions and requirements that apply to many other components of the county’s $36 billion-plus budget, and Measure J is just one of them.”

She said that in a fiscal emergency, the board could reduce the 10% set-aside by a four-fifths vote.

A coalition of activists who supported the measure decried the judge’s remarks as bucking the will of voters.

“Angelenos have made it clear where they want their tax dollars to go, and with this lawsuit, it’s clear that [law enforcement special interest groups] will do anything they can to undermine L.A. County voters,” said Ivette Alé, an organizer with Dignity and Power Now, which advocates for people who are incarcerated and their families.

Measure J was placed on the ballot amid widespread calls across the country for police reform spurred by the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer.

At the time, the county’s chief executive, Sachi Hamai, had warned the board that the fixed allocation of funds would tie their hands and could make future economic downturns more difficult to navigate.

Kathryn Barger, whose 5th District in northern L.A. County is the largest geographically, was the only supervisor opposed to the charter amendment.

Times staff writer Jaclyn Cosgrove contributed to this report.


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