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Forsaken 5 Compete for Favor of Voters

With issues such as bilingual education and union solidarity siphoning off most of the limelight, a quintet of lesser-known measures seek recognition.


SACRAMENTO — Five of the nine propositions on the June ballot are attracting scant notice, what with the rising din over hot-button initiatives attacking bilingual education practices and union political muscle.

But voters take note: To some degree, your courts, your judges and your crime laws are at stake in the outcome of the lowly five.

There is even one--Proposition 225, which would force politicians to support term limits for members of Congress--whose so-called proponents are all but calling for the defeat of their own measure.

Sally Reed Impastato, a board director of the group U.S. Term Limits, tells voters in the official ballot pamphlet: "Passage of this measure will likely result only in needless and costly litigation."

The legal snarl centers on language in Proposition 225 that recommends passage of a U.S. constitutional amendment limiting House members to six years in office and U.S. senators to 12 years. It also would require all federal and state candidates for legislative office to declare their support for such limits--or be identified publicly as "disregard[ing] voters' instructions on term limits."

States cannot bring that kind of pressure, even indirectly, on federal elected officials, the courts have ruled.

But those rulings came before proponents of the present measure first tried to qualify such an initiative in 1996. Now, since it's clear that the measure could never pass judicial muster but is on the June ballot anyway, voters are faced with a "meaningless election," Impastato said.

Proponents said they have not given up the fight for congressional term limits and will try, probably in 2000, to qualify an initiative more likely to be upheld in the courts.

Other low-wattage measures:

* Proposition 219 would make future ballot propositions apply uniformly across the state, regardless of the outcome county by county. Counties and other local areas could not be penalized just because their vote went against a proposition that passed statewide.

That almost happened in 1993, when an initiative was approved that made permanent a temporary half-cent sales tax to raise funds for added police protection. Drafters wrote the measure so that the only counties to receive extra police funds would be those where the local vote went in favor of the initiative, or if the county board of supervisors voiced support.

The supervisor caveat saved 19 counties where the state ballot measure failed.

Had that not happened, it would have been "ballot box blackmail," argue Proposition 219 supporters. They warn that voters could be philosophically against a ballot measure but be coerced into voting for it anyway to avoid being selectively penalized.

Passage of Proposition 219, backers say, would assure that this could not happen.

* Proposition 220 would give judges an option to unify their courts, allowing Municipal Court judges to become Superior Court judges, thus increasing the number of judges hearing major civil and criminal cases.

An election by the judges in each county would determine unification.

(Any conflict with Proposition 219 because of the county-by-county option would probably be resolved by the courts, state election officials said).

California's 1994 three-strikes sentencing law brought defendants pouring into courtrooms asking for jury trials as their only hope for beating a life-sentence rap, the argument for Proposition 220 goes. Thus, the creation of more Superior Court judges would ease the burden, proponents say.

But the facts are in dispute.

Proponents declare in their ballot pamphlet arguments that jury trial requests have risen "more than 600% in Los Angeles alone."

Not so, said spokeswoman Jerrianne Hayslett of the county's Superior Court system. Through efficiencies that have streamlined the system, the backlog of three-strikes cases in Los Angeles is now virtually zero, she said. "That 600% figure is not accurate" by a long shot, she added.

Among Los Angeles judges, some worry that passage of Proposition 220 would invite voting-rights lawsuits that the county would be hard-pressed to win.

Municipal Court judges are elected by voters within judicial districts; Superior Court judges are elected countywide, both for six-year terms, noted Superior Court Judge Michael Farrell in Van Nuys.

To wipe out the Municipal Court system would be to deny, for example, minority communities within judicial districts the ability to elect judges of their choice, he said.

"It would be loss of local control," Farrell said, in places like East Los Angeles and Compton that might favor the election of minority judges.

Proposition 220, if passed, "may work in small counties," Farrell said. But in Los Angeles County, where a third of all the state's judges preside, passage would mean "one big administrative nightmare" engulfing about 400 judges, he said.

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