Monday, June 23, 2003
Sheriff Baca Can Sue to Block Term Limits, Lockyer Says
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was granted permission by Attorney General Bill Lockyer Friday to challenge the voter-approved term limits for county officers.
Lockyer granted Baca’s request for leave to sue in quo warranto. Baca’s claim that state law does not allow charter counties to impose term limits on sheriffs “presents a substantial question of law requiring judicial resolution,” the attorney general said.
Los Angeles County voters adopted Measure A in March of last year. The charter amendment limits the sheriff, district attorney, and assessor, as well as supervisors, to three terms, beginning in December 2002. Baca, the only affected official to bring a legal challenge to the measure thus far, would be limited to two more terms if the measure stands.
Baca attempted unsuccessfully to keep Measure A off the ballot. Only Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who has been in office since 1980, voted against putting the proposal to the people.
The other affected office holders are District Attorney Steve Cooley, who was non-committal on the measure but has said he would only seek one more term, and Assessor Rick Auerbach, who did not oppose Measure A.
Lockyer said the sheriff has met the two requisites for a quo warranto action—the substantial-question hurdle and a showing that the action is in the public interest.
In an opinion prepared by Deputy Attorney General Gregory L. Gonot, Lockyer cited a 1979 Court of Appeal opinion that struck down a term-limits amendment to the San Diego County Charter.
Term limits, the court reasoned, are a “qualification” for office. Because Art. XI, Sec. 4(c) of the state Constitution allows charter counties to fix qualifications for appointed officials and employees, but not for elected officials, the power to determine qualifications for elected county officers is beyond the scope of home rule and belongs to the Legislature, the court reasoned.
The court rejected the contention that charter counties may set term limits because the Constitution allows them to fix the “terms” of elected officials. In its context, the court said, the reference clearly means that a county may set the length of each official’s term, not that it may limit the number of terms.
That opinion is established law and has been relied on in subsequent Court of Appeal cases and in a prior attorney general opinion, Lockyer noted.
The attorney general went on to reject the county’s contention that allowing Baca to sue would be contrary to the public interest because the amendment would not affect him before 2014, and could become moot if, for example, he was defeated or resigned, or the limits were amended or repealed by another voter-approved measure.
No legitimate purpose would be served by delaying a court test on Measure A, Lockyer concluded.
“The charter amendment at issue is either legally valid at this time or it is not; all of the facts necessary for a judicial determination are known,” he said. “A judicial ruling will dispose of the controversy and prevent lingering uncertainty in the law not only for Relator, but for other county officers as well. The county’s voters have a right to know whether a charter amendment they have adopted is constitutional.”
The opinion is No. 03-409.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company