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Bill OKd to Halt Reversals of Initiatives by One Judge

Congress: House passes measure, which would require three-jurist panel for overturning voters' decisions. Uphill battle in Senate is seen.


WASHINGTON — Responding in part to a string of judicial rulings that overturned contentious ballot measures in California, the House moved for a second time Thursday to block federal judges from single-handedly striking down state initiatives.

But the proposal--which first passed the House in 1995, then languished in the Senate--again faces an uncertain future. The provision, part of an overall judicial reform bill that cleared the House on a voice vote, could help scuttle the entire legislation.

The House proposal, originally introduced by the late Rep. Sonny Bono, would require a three-judge panel to hear constitutional challenges of state referendums. It would then allow direct appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Advocates echoed the frustration of many Californians who in recent years have seen ballot measures dealing with illegal immigration, affirmative action and campaign financing stalled by a single judge's ruling after having been passed by the state's voters.

By boosting the number of jurists who scrutinize such matters, supporters hope to rein in what they call judicial activism and make it far tougher for individual judges to frustrate the popular will.

But opponents say it is unnecessary to retool the system, which allows the legal merits of initiatives to be hashed out through a series of reviews. They point out that some ballot measures, while popular, are not artfully drafted and clash with the Constitution.

Despite the easy passage of the overall bill, even backers conceded that it faces an uphill battle in the Senate and firm resistance from Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, who has recommended a presidential veto if the three-judge review provision remains in the legislation.

A White House statement said that the requirement for such a panel would complicate the resolution of those cases in which state measures clearly conflict with federal law. Also, the administration opposes the "unprecedented direct and immediate access to the Supreme Court."

In California, where ballot initiatives have long spawned raucous political brawls, the House measure has been endorsed by Gov. Pete Wilson, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and others frustrated by what they consider the freewheeling ways of some federal judges.

Just last month, U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer issued a final order forbidding implementation of the core provisions of Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative that would restrict a variety of public services for illegal immigrants and their children.

Supporters of the illegal immigration crackdown intend to challenge Pfaelzer's ruling, a dispute that many legal observers believe will end up in the Supreme Court.

The high court already has weighed in on another ballot measure, the anti-affirmative-action Proposition 209.

That initiative, approved by voters in 1996, was blocked by Chief U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson. But the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, endorsed the measure last year in a ruling that the Supreme Court let stand.

In that instance, the appellate judges wrote: "It is clear that a state suffers irreparable injury whenever an enactment of its people or their representatives is enjoined."

In another case, a federal judge in January struck down the core of California's voter-approved limits on campaign contributions.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton ruled that the financing limits in Proposition 208, approved by voters in 1996, were set so low that they unconstitutionally infringed on candidates' ability to get their messages to voters.

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