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Justices Reject Final Term Limits Appeal

Politics: U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear case, taking view that voters, not judges, must decide the issue.

March 24, 1998|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The final legal challenge to California's term limits for state lawmakers ended quietly at the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.

Without comment, the justices refused to hear an appeal from a veteran state lawmaker who was forced from office in 1996. The lawmaker charged that voters had a constitutional right to choose an experienced candidate such as himself rather than the novices who replaced him.

Regardless of the merits of this argument, the Supreme Court has taken the view that the state's voters, not federal judges, are entitled to decide on the terms for state lawmakers.

The court's action Monday leaves intact the 1990 initiative that has transformed California's state politics. Forced from office were the powerful Democratic incumbents who dominated the Legislature in Sacramento in the 1980s and early 1990s, among them former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, now the mayor of San Francisco, and former Sen. David A. Roberti of Los Angeles.

Now, members of the Assembly can hold office for no more than six years, and state senators are limited to eight years in office. The state's rule is one of the nation's most restrictive because it sets lifetime limits, not just a ban on consecutive terms in office.

Monday's decision "validates the will of the people to open up the political process to new faces, fresh ideas and renewed competition," said Gov. Pete Wilson, a supporter of term limits.

Although term limits have opened the doors for a new generation of leadership in the Legislature, some beneficiaries still question the wisdom of trusting newcomers to make the laws.

Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), the new Assembly Speaker, owes his quick rise to power to the 1990 initiative. But his press secretary said Monday that Villaraigosa believes that the voters will come to see the downside of forcing effective and experienced lawmakers from office.

The Legislature "is losing too much institutional knowledge" with the frequent turnover of members, said Richard Zieger, a spokesman for Villaraigosa.

Sen. Ross Johnson of Irvine, the newly elected Senate Republican floor leader, said he supports term limits and is glad to see the legal challenge come to an end. The voters approved the term limits "and we should respect their decision," he said.

But Johnson too acknowledged some doubts about the ultimate benefit of the change. "Has the Legislature been improved by term limits? I think the jury is still out on that question."

After Proposition 140 was narrowly approved, several lawmakers and their supporters challenged the limits as unconstitutional in the state courts. They lost, however, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal in 1992. That seemed to be end of the matter.

But in 1995, lawyers for veteran Democratic Assemblyman Tom Bates of Oakland tried again in federal court and won before U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, a new appointee of President Clinton. She said the state law violated the 1st Amendment rights of the voters to elect the candidate of their choice.

A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, on a 2-1 vote, upheld that conclusion last year, a ruling that threatened to unravel the term limits law.

But the full 9th Circuit Court took up the issue, reversed Judge Wilken and declared the law constitutional. It was that ruling that the high court has now declined to review further, Bates vs. Jones, 97-1173.

Times staff writers Carl Ingram, Dan Morain and Max Vanzi in Sacramento contributed to this story.

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