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Effort to Change Judge Elections Is Dismissed

Courts: U.S. jurist rules campaign finance laws are legal. Suit had claimed that high costs exclude poor candidates.

August 13, 1996|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although expressing his view that improvements to the election system are called for, a federal judge ruled Monday that state judicial campaign financing laws are not unconstitutional, and he threw out a landmark challenge to the way Los Angeles elects judges.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of a host of civil rights organizations and individual Los Angeles voters argued that the high cost of running for judicial office in Los Angeles County--inclusion on the voter pamphlet alone can cost more than $45,000--effectively prohibits low- and moderate-income candidates from running meaningful campaigns and limits the choices made available to voters, denying their rights as well.

Lawyers from the National Voting Rights Institute, which filed the lawsuit, have vigorously pursued it, contending that the high price of judicial elections in the county amounts to "wealth primaries" in which judgeships usually go to the candidates who can raise and spend the most money. In part, their conclusions are based on a 1995 study by the California Commission on Campaign Financing, which found that candidates and their families supply much of the money used to finance their campaigns and lawyers contribute much of the rest.

The result, according to critics such as the NAACP, is an election system that favors wealthy candidates and encourages those with business before the courts to contribute to the same judges who eventually may rule on their disputes.

U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian concluded Monday, however, that although the system is not perfect, it does not violate fundamental constitutional rights.

"Those candidates who can go out and successfully raise money do better," said Tevrizian, an experienced federal judge who has handled a number of previous voting rights cases. "That's a fact of life."

Although he refused to allow the lawsuit to go forward, Tevrizian and lawyers on both sides of the case expressed support for public financing of electoral campaigns, an idea strongly supported by the lawsuit's backers. The judge, however, said he could not let his personal views interfere with the ruling he felt bound to make.

"I have always been in favor personally of subsidized elections," Tevrizian said.

But he added that the decision on how to pay for elections was up to the Legislature and to voters. For him to intervene, Tevrizian said, would be an act of "judicial mischief."

Tevrizian's critique of the election process was echoed both by the lawyers who filed the suit and by one of their opponents, an attorney representing the state government. Deputy Atty. Gen. Tom Blake described the lawsuit as part of a long history of "agitation for public financing of political campaigns," an idea that he said he favored but that the Legislature and electorate had refused to approve.

Urging Tevrizian to reconsider, Abigail Turner of the Voting Rights Institute said the current system is unconstitutional, giving courts the right to intervene. She also attempted to deflect Tevrizian's insistence that a 1990 appellate ruling prohibited him from taking the action she was urging him to adopt.

In that case, known as Kaplan v. County of Los Angeles, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the high fees charged to candidates for inclusion in the county voter pamphlet did not violate federal constitutional rights.

In 1986, Leon S. Kaplan, a Municipal Court judge seeking a spot on the Superior Court in Los Angeles, argued that the $52,000 pamphlet fee for the primary campaign and the $27,500 fee for the general election violated his free speech rights as well as the right of citizens to receive equal protection under the law. The fees, he maintained, deprived poor candidates of the right to be included in the voter pamphlet.

But the appellate judges noted that failing to pay for a spot in the pamphlet did not deny a candidate the right to appear on the ballot--and thus was not the equivalent of an impermissible tax to appear on the ballot. They also found that the county was entitled to charge money to cover the cost of printing and distributing the pamphlet.

"We live in an age in which population growth and technological development have made even local political races into expensive undertakings," the appellate judges ruled. "Inevitably, some candidates will possess greater financial resources than others and will enjoy greater access to the electorate. Although this may be unfair and unsatisfactory, we, as judges, cannot iron out electoral disparity resulting from differences in candidates' financial resources."

Tevrizian, who heard the original case in Kaplan, said that ruling would apply to the current lawsuit as well.

Turner responded that the new lawsuit primarily focuses on the rights of voters, not candidates. Voters suffer because of the high cost of judicial elections, including the cost of being included on the pamphlet, she said, because they are given a shorter list of candidates from whom to choose.

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