Ted Lieu’s Proposition 49 would have put Citizens United in Californians’ crosshairs

By Gary Walker

Voters have six statewide ballot propositions to choose from on Nov. 4.

They would have seven if it were up to Westside state Sen. Ted Lieu (D- Torrance).

The California Supreme Court voted 6-1 on Aug. 14 to remove from the ballot Proposition 49, based on legislation authored by Lieu.

The advisory vote would have polled statewide voters on whether Congress should create new campaign finance regulations that would effectively overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial 2010 Citizen’s United decision, which affirmed the rights of political action committees to raise unlimited campaign contributions in support of candidates or political causes.

“The state Supreme Court suppressed the voices of the voters by taking Prop. 49 off the ballot this year,” said Lieu. “I believe that when the court receives a full briefing on my bill they will allow it to go on the ballot in 2016.”

Lieu may soon get other opportunities to weigh in on Citizens United. He’s on the Nov. 4 ballot to replace Rep. Henry Waxman (D- Beverly Hills) in the House of Representatives.

A group of campaign finance reform advocates are taking their own approach. They’ve launched a campaign targeting state Supreme Court associate justices Kathryn Werdegard and Goodwin Liu for their votes that derailed Prop. 49.

Under California law, state Supreme Court associate justices are subject to “retention votes” in the general election every 12 years after being appointed by the governor.

Retention votes for Werdegard and Liu happen to appear on the Nov. 4 ballot, and an organization calling itself “The Committee to Remove Werdegard and Liu” is urging voters to kick them off the bench.

“The California Constitution couldn’t be clearer,” said Michele Sutter, a spokeswoman for the campaign. “The people of California have the right to instruct their representatives. The court disenfranchised every voter in California and shut down this essential conversation America has to have about Big Money buying our government.”

UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler thinks the group is facing an uphill battle.

“I don’t think this particular issue will raise enough controversy to have two Supreme Court justices voted out of office,” he said.

Winkler said the campaign against an associate justice like Liu — who holds many liberal social views and was nominated in 2010 by President Obama for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals, a nomination blocked by Republicans — is indicative of public rancor against Citizens United.

Nonetheless, he feels the campaign against the associate justices is ill-advised.

“It shows how misguided this movement is when you have a progressive like Goodwin Liu being targeted. I think it’s a misunderstanding of [the state court’s lack of jurisdiction over] Citizens United,” the professor said.

In 1986, facing a conservative backlash for her staunch opposition to the death penalty, former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird became the first state chief justice to be voted out of office. Her supporters viewed the campaign against her as largely political, and Winkler thinks it opened the door for seemingly politically-based campaigns such as “The Committee to Remove Werdegard and Liu.”

“California voters are right to be concerned about the role of money in politics and the extent of corporate power in politics. But this is the wrong reform. We should not be removing justices for their rulings,” he said. “The proper means for removing a judge from office are for conflict of interest, corruption and judicial bias.”

While his bill was advisory, Lieu said many past social and political movements started with non-binding legislation.

“The way that the Constitution has been amended previously has been through grassroots efforts,” he said.