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Fairness Counts; So Does Speed

Sacramento anxiously awaits rulings on three crucial lawsuits

September 21, 1997

By almost any measure, the final week of the 1997 session of the California Legislature was one of the most productive in years. And it was unique for another significant reason: Lawmakers kept busy making law inside the Capitol rather than hosting lobbyists at tony restaurants in a nonstop campaign for funds.

Gone were the days of the most pernicious type of fund-raising, when legislators sought big corporate contributions from the special interests at the very time that bills of critical importance to those interests were facing do-or-die votes in the Capitol. The unstated was obvious: You don't have to donate to assure passage of your bill, but a refusal to give surely isn't going to help your cause.

Who could take that chance? Few did.

Last November, Californians passed Proposition 208, which banned legislative fund-raising during nonelection years and prohibited lobbyists from giving money to legislators. So throughout 1997, and especially in the final days of the session, legislators weren't distracted by the need to raise campaign funds.

Unfortunately, the constitutionality of Proposition 208 is now being challenged by the political parties and other interests. Their lawsuit will be heard in federal district court in Sacramento beginning Oct. 15. And that is just one of three judicial proceedings that could have a dramatic effect on the California political system on the eve of the critical 1998 state elections, in which Californians will choose their next governor and a U.S. senator and will fill all the other statewide elected offices and 100 of the 120 seats in the Legislature.

In each case, the suit seeks to overthrow a major election law written by voters as a ballot initiative: the campaign finance reform law, the open primary law passed in the spring of 1996 and the term limits imposed on state lawmakers and officeholders by voters in 1990.

The major political parties also are the prime movers in the challenge to the open primary law, which allows anyone to vote for a candidate of any party in each contest on the ballot.

Term limits are being challenged by a group of former and incumbent legislators with complaints about mandatory retirement.

Unless rulings come soon, the 1998 election campaign could be thrown into chaos. The most crucial decision in terms of timing involves term limits, since candidates can begin filing for state offices and legislative seats in December. Secretary of State Bill Jones is seeking to rush the challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court, declaring, as the state's top elections official, "I am running out of time." But it's also clear that Jones fears the 3rd U.S. Court of Appeals will invalidate the term limits law, as did a federal district judge earlier in the year.

As in any lawsuit, the courts must rule fairly. But in these three cases, it would help greatly if they ruled both fairly and quickly.

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