SACRAMENTO — A Superior Court judge Wednesday upheld the title of a March initiative aimed at banning gay marriage in California and tinkered with language in ballot arguments for and against a measure on juvenile crime.
The headliner was a duel over Proposition 22, which would bar the state from recognizing same-sex marriages and thus from providing the benefits conferred on such unions.
Proponents argued that the name given the measure by Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer--"Limit on Marriage"--is prejudicial and likely to sway voters against it.
After a brief hearing, Judge James T. Ford disagreed, saying he is not aware of "any natural bias against limitations" within the electorate.
Ford also said the term "limit" is "accurately descriptive" of what Proposition 22 would do.
"The very definition [of the measure] imposes a limitation" on same-sex couples who might someday marry in another state and seek recognition by California, Ford said. In sum, he concluded, there is no "clear and convincing evidence" that the title is inaccurate or misleading.
Initiative opponents praised Ford's decision, calling it a proper application of laws requiring that a ballot title be a "true and impartial statement" of the measure's purpose.
"We're very pleased," said Clyde Wadsworth, an attorney who argued on behalf of the League of Women Voters. "This initiative represents a significant change in the law, and the word 'limit' in the title will help voters understand that."
Sponsors of the initiative said they will not appeal but remain convinced that the name will automatically prompt some people to vote no.
"Many voters won't go beyond the title, and when they read that word--'limit'--they may assume the initiative would change an institution--marriage--that they're happy with now," said attorney Tim Morgan. "That's not what the measure does at all, so we think it's misleading."
Morgan said the original title--"Definition of Marriage"--was more accurate, though he would have accepted "Lawful Marriage" or any number of other "more neutral names."
Written by state Sen. William J. "Pete" Knight, Proposition 22 would bar California from recognizing same-sex marriages--unions that are not legal anywhere but could become so in Vermont or Hawaii, where legal action is pending. Proponents say the legal definition of marriage should remain a union between a man and a woman.
Later Wednesday, Ford sifted through a number of challenges to the wording in ballot language about the "Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act," Proposition 21 on the March 7 ballot.
Opponents of the initiative charged that seven phrases in proponents' ballot arguments are false or misleading, designed to scare voters into voting for the measure.
They were most concerned about language stating that a juvenile convicted of a particularly brutal murder would be released in three years, and that such an outcome "is not the exception but the rule."
"This is misleading," Ford said in ordering a rewording. "The way I read it, it says that if you commit a murder, you get out in three years. . . . That's just not true."
Supporters of the initiative won a few rounds as well. In their ballot argument, they used the phrase "slap on the wrist" to describe the way current law treats juvenile criminals. Ford declined to strike the wording, calling it "puffery" that voters would recognize as "pure opinion."
The judge also granted the supporters' request and watered down a phrase in the opponents' argument that said Proposition 21 would "put kids in prisons with adult inmates." While it may be true in some cases, Ford said, the phrase--designed to arouse sympathy--conflicts with state law requiring that juvenile prisoners be housed separately.
In true political form, both sides claimed victory Wednesday.
Dan Macallair, director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said Ford's rulings "prove that proponents can't say what they please to scare voters. The judge imposed a degree of accountability."
Mitch Zak, a strategist for the pro-Proposition 21 campaign, called Ford's rulings a "substantial victory."
"The opponents made a desperate attempt to mischaracterize the initiative," Zak said, "and the judge didn't allow it."
Sponsored by former Gov. Pete Wilson, the initiative proposes sweeping changes in the prosecution, sentencing and incarceration of juvenile offenders. It also expands penalties for gang members and requires that juveniles 14 or older who are charged with murder or violent sex crimes be tried as adults.