California's fall ballot shrank late Monday afternoon when the state Supreme Court blocked Proposition 49, an advisory measure that sought to take the electorate's pulse on a flashpoint issue in the national debate over money in politics.
In a 5-1 ruling, the justices ordered Secretary of State Debra Bowen to pull Prop 49 out of election preparations until the legal case is resolved. With the looming deadline for those materials to be printed, the decision effectively removes the measure altogether from the Nov. 4 statewide ballot.
While the main ruling offers no real reason for the decision, a lengthy concurring opinion written by Justice Goodwin Liu offers a resounding rebuttal to legislators who wanted voters to weigh in on the landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC.
"Our [state] constitution," wrote Liu, "makes no provision for advisory questions, because such polling of the electorate by the Legislature is in tension with the basic purpose of representative as opposed to direct democracy."
In short, said Liu, California's legislators have no defined power to place advisory measures on the ballot, only those that give the voters the power to authorize government action.
The ruling was signed by Liu and Justices Marvin Baxter; Kathryn Werdegar; Chin; and Carol Corrigan.
The lone vote against removing Prop 49 from the ballot came from Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. She wrote that while she agreed the issue was murky, but strongly criticized the Court majority for blocking the measure from November's ballot.
"By the majority's action," Cantil-Sakauye writes of the decision by her colleagues, "the Legislature will be deprived of knowing in a timely manner where the voters stand on the issue, perhaps influencing what further steps the Legislature will take" on the issue.
The plaintiff in the case, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, made virtually the same argument in its court filings. Some critics of Prop 49 went even further, arguing that the measure was really a ploy to boost Democratic turnout in November by offering voters a chance to sound off on an issue that stirs passion among the party faithful.
Prop 49 supporters, though, countered that it was a valid measure. They argued it was, in fact, appropriate for voters to express their opinion -- via an advisory measure -- on the issue of whether the nation's high court unfairly aided corporate political muscle in federal elections, through its ruling four years ago.
“It is unbelievable, in fact unbearable, that the Court would find that unlimited ‘money speech’ by artificial persons and corporations is the order of the day while actual speech by actual voters is to be outlawed,” said Michele Sutter, chair of the Yes on 49 committee, in an emailed statement.
Prop 49 was placed on the ballot on party-line votes in the Senate and Assembly earlier this summer. Its removal means the fall ballot now stands at six propositions, one of the shortest ballots in state history.