Leon Worden

Term limits, like ruling, ill-advised

Leon Worden · May 14, 1997

California's term-limit law is unconstitutional. So says Claudia Wilken, a federal judge in Oakland who ruled last month that barring assemblymen and senators from ever returning to those offices after serving a fixed number of years would place "a severe burden on the right of . . . citizens to vote for candidates of their choice."

Proposition 140, approved by 3.4 million voters in 1990, limits lawmakers to six years in the assembly and eight years in the senate. Now, after seven years, the ballot measure has thoroughly cleaned house in the assembly and will do so next year in the senate. No one in the assembly today was a member of that body when the measure passed, and the senate's turnover will be complete after the 1998 elections.

The California Supreme Court voted 6-1 to uphold Prop. 140 in 1991. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the ruling. A handful of Democratic lawmakers who were termed out of the assembly last year shopped around for a sympathetic judge and filed suit recently in her court, so it's all up in the air again.

Judge Wilken has been roundly criticized as the latest renegade judge to impose her personal views on a voter-approved law. Admittedly -- mind you, I voted against Prop. 140 and would do so again -- Judge Wilken's objection to the "lifetime ban" is flimsy at best. Federal courts have upheld lifetime bans in other states. Even the federal Constitution, by way of the 22nd Amendment, places a two-term lifetime ban on the president. Fortunately, Judge Wilken had the good sense to stay her ruling until an appellate court can review it. For now, term limits are the law of the land.

Are we better off? Ironies abound. Many Republican officials who lined up behind Prop. 140 in 1990 are starting to back away, now that they're the ones who are being termed out. The buzz words you hear these days at GOP conventions are "fair" and "reasonable" term limits, which supposedly mean longer terms, or a chance to run again after a hiatus, or both.

There are personal ironies, too. Prop. 140 really began as a vendetta by former Los Angeles County supervisor Pete Shabarum against longtime assembly speaker Willie Brown. Shabarum, who chaired the Prop. 140 campaign, has since been indicted, and Bay Area Democrats still control the legislature. Willie Brown doesn't need to sit on the throne of the assembly to remain one of the most powerful politicians in California.

Prop. 140 has failed to accomplish what many voters sought: the elimination of special-interest influence peddling and a return of power to "the people." Throughout the state today, all we see are the same politicians jockeying for position as assembly members wage costly campaigns for senate and senators for statewide office. The titles change but few faces do.

Even with some new faces, the 1995-96 assembly session was a total waste, punctuated with partisan speakership battles, recall elections and little else. The current session seems quieter and a bit more bipartisan, but no one on either side of the aisle expects that to last.

"Throw the bums out" is a popular mantra, but those who chant it have little knowledge of the workings of government. It doesn't address organizational structure, and besides, it targets the wrong bums. At least the politicians have to go before the voters every two to four years. It's the unelected bureaucrats who truly run the show, and bureaucrats are forever.

As League of Women Voters president Becky Cain said in congressional testimony a couple of years ago, term limits are "a smokescreen, a simplistic answer to hard questions about our government, . . . a meat-axe approach that does not distinguish between legislators whose careers deserve to be cut short and those who deserve reelection." Fixing what's really wrong with the system, she said, is a more complicated process.

Prop. 140 was designed to get rid of Willie Brown and company, but it threw the baby out with the bathwater. If we wanted to fix the problem, we should have faced it head-on. We should have limited the power of the speaker's office.

Unless and until a higher court upholds Judge Wilken's ruling, Republican lawmakers who supported Prop. 140 will just have to live with their decision to term themselves out.

Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears on Wednesdays.

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