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California term limits: up in the air.

With just weeks to go before filing begins for the 1998 elections, Tom Bates of Berkeley has no idea what office he is going to run for, or even whether he will be allowed to run at all.

"Everything is kind of up in the air," Bates said.

That's only fitting.

Bates is the former California assemblyman whose lawsuit against term limits has upset the state's political apple cart, leaving dozens of incumbents and potential candidates in limbo.

California's term limits law, adopted by initiative in 1990, has been on again, off again throughout the fall as federal courts have studied and ruled on it. The law was on again at press time, but just barely. The only thing that is clear is that things will remain unclear for weeks to come.

Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante's admonition to his members to "run, baby, run" after a district court struck down term limits has been amended to "wait, baby, wait." Bustamante is one of 27 members of the Legislature -- 11 in the Senate and 16 in the Assembly -- who will be barred from running again if term limits remain in effect. Also on the way out are Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer and former Assembly Republican Leader Curt Pringle.

An 11-judge panel of the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was set to hear the case Nov. 20 and was expected to rule shortly thereafter. But that decision, no matter how it goes, is certain to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The appeals court judges are reviewing the 2-1 decision of a three-judge panel that upheld district court Judge Claudia Wilken's decision striking down the law. Wilken had ruled that the California law's lifetime ban on term-limited lawmakers was unconstitutional.

But in a twist that surprised nearly everyone, the three-judge appeals court panel, unlike Wilken, did not address the constitutionality of term limits directly. It simply struck down the law on a technicality, ruling that voters were not sufficiently informed of the lifetime ban when they approved term limits seven years ago.

That ruling outraged term limit supporters, who accused Judge Stephen Reinhardt of trying to void the law on such a narrow basis that his decision would not provoke review by the Supreme Court. The law's backers were infuriated even more when Reinhardt issued a short stay of the decision that seemed designed to ensure that term limits would be off the books during any remaining appeals.

But just days before his decision was due to take effect, a majority of the court's 18 active judges voted to review it further. And they ruled that term limits would remain the law until they finished the case.

Now some lawyers and state officials are speculating that Reinhardt's legal reasoning may backfire on the liberal jurist. His ruling, if it stands, would place in jeopardy nearly every ballot measure approved in all the western states under the 9th Circuit's jurisdiction. Since most such initiatives include complex language or provisions whose meaning is not full explained during the campaign, any of them could be struck from the books if Reinhardt's standard stands.

The 11-judge panel has several options. It can uphold Reinhardt. It could affirm Wilken's original decision while dropping Reinhardt's reasoning. Or it could overrule both of them and rule that the law is constitutional.

Both sides in the legal battle seemed relieved at the latest wrinkle.

"We're very pleased," said Secretary of State Bill Jones, a former Assembly Republican leader and supporter of term limits. "It implies that at least they wish to take a look at the decision."

Bates, the original plaintiff in the case, also welcomed the review, because he wants the matter to be decided on broader grounds than Reinhardt provided in his decision. A more sweeping ruling, he said, might lead to the end of lifetime term limits nationwide.

"Hopefully they will come up with the same ruling that the trial court did, that the lifetime ban is unconstitutional," Bates said. "I'd like to see the Supreme Court take on the whole issue of term limits."

Bates filed his suit in 1995, but was forced to leave the Assembly a year later, before the case was decided. He served 20 years in all, including the maximum six after term limits were passed in 1990. When he left office, he was replaced by his longtime chief of staff, Dion Aroner. Not wanting to run against Aroner, Bates is now exploring campaigns in two adjacent districts. But he still doesn't know whether he will be allowed to run at all.

"We're really waiting to see like everybody else," he said.
COPYRIGHT 1997 National Conference of State Legislatures
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:California's term limits law
Author:Weintraub, Daniel M.
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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