The California Supreme Court has done itself and the rest of the state a great favor. By ruling unanimously that Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach) cannot be sworn in as the next state treasurer because his nomination was rejected by the state Senate, the court adhered both to common sense and to the intent of the voters. And, perhaps what is most important, the justices once again demonstrated their independence of Gov. George Deukmejian, who appointed five of them, by rejecting what they called his "distorted interpretation" of the California Constitution.
From the moment Lungren was appointed to succeed Democrat Jesse Unruh, who died last August, this has been an openly partisan fight. During Lungren's protracted confirmation hearings, Democrats voiced objections not the least bit germane to his fitness to be treasurer. The 21-19 vote against him in the Senate, coming the same day as his approval by the Assembly, went strictly along party lines. In court, Lungren and Deukmejian took the position that a constitutional amendment adopted by the voters in November, 1976, gave the governor free rein to fill vacancies in statewide offices unless his nominees were rejected by both houses of the Legislature. Their Democratic foes, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and Senate President David A. Roberti, contended that the same provision meant that a nominee had to be approved by both the Assembly and the Senate.
The court's unsigned opinion adopted the Democrats' interpretation, but only after exhaustive consideration of Republican views, a thorough survey of the amendment's history and a mind-numbing, hair-splitting exegesis of specific words. Both the amendment's language and its history lead to the conclusion that confirmation by both houses is required, the court decided. Particularly persuasive, the court said, was the ballot pamphlet mailed to voters weeks before the 1976 election that repeated at least half a dozen times that nominees would need the approval of both houses.
We think that the court's decision deserves respect, and not simply because we agree with its conclusions. Unlike the other players in this drama, the court has been determinedly nonpartisan, scrupulous about the rules of statutory construction and mindful that it was not only interpreting a few lines of the Constitution but was also deciding something fundamental about the balance of power in Sacramento. As the court said, to accept Lungren's argument would nullify the Senate's vote and "seriously degrade the power and dignity of one house of the Legislature."
The court did wonders for its own dignity, too. This decision, following on the heels of two other rulings rejecting Deukmejian's stances on state-funded abortions and the use of his veto, should reassure Californians that the new Supreme Court is not simply a rubber stamp for the governor.
Now let's hope that the governor and the Legislature care as much about their own dignity. To fill this vacancy, Deukmejian should consult Democratic leaders and put forth a nominee certain to win quick confirmation--perhaps Senate Republican leader Ken Maddy of Fresno or a caretaker who can run the treasurer's office, competently and professionally, until the 1990 election. What the governor and the Legislature ought to avoid is another dog fight like this one.