California Attorney General Kamala Harris asked a court Wednesday to intervene and allow her to block an incendiary planned ballot measure authorizing the killing of gays and lesbians.
Calling the proposed “Sodomite Suppression Act” patently unconstitutional and utterly reprehensible, Harris filed a request with the Superior Court in Sacramento seeking to be relieved of her ministerial duty to prepare a title and summary for the measure before it advances to the signature-gathering stage. Harris argues that readying it for circulation would waste state resources, generate unnecessary divisions and mislead the public.
“This is not about whether we like something or not, or whether we simply find it offensive or troubling,” Harris said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee. “In this case, we are talking about a proposal that literally is calling for violence. It’s calling for vigilantism. It’s calling for the public to be able to shoot in the head a member of the LGBT community.
“I, frankly, do not want to be in the position of giving any legitimacy to those words.”
Huntington Beach attorney Matt McLaughlin paid $200 to file the measure. It refers to “sodomy” as “a monstrous evil” and specifies that anyone who touches another person of the same gender for sexual gratification be put to death by “bullets to the head” or “any other convenient method.”
McLaughlin’s initiative also requires that anyone who transmits “sodomistic propaganda” to a minor be fined $1 million per offense, imprisoned up to 10 years, or expelled from the state. Repeated attempts to reach him have been unsuccessful.
California courts have said previously that the attorney general does not have the power to prevent an initiative from moving forward. But Harris noted that the courts have allowed the state’s top law enforcement official to seek judicial authorization to withhold a title and summary when a proposal is unconstitutional on its face.
Having concluded that she can’t unilaterally refuse to prepare the measure, Harris took the proper legal action by asking for a court’s review, said Tom Hiltachk, a political and election lawyer. He said the only risk to the process generally would come from extended delay caused by the judicial action.
“Assuming she and the court (move) the case expeditiously, then this approach poses no ‘risk’ to the process,” Hiltachk said.
Should the measure be cleared for circulation, McLaughlin would have 180 days to collect the 365,880 signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot.
Amid mounting criticism of his efforts, state lawmakers are taking steps to amend the initiative process.
Assemblymen Evan Low of Campbell and Richard Bloom of Santa Monica, both Democrats, have introduced a bill to raise the initiative filing fee to $8,000 – roughly the cost to prepare the title and summary. It would be the first increase in more than 70 years. Proponents would be reimbursed if their proposed initiatives qualified for the ballot within two years.
Previous attempts, most recently to hike the fee to $2,000, have been unsuccessful. Critics over the years have countered that raising the barrier to entry too high will make it tougher for grass-roots citizen groups to qualify a measure.
“Raising the fee to an unreasonable level will not stop (certain) ideas,” said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento. That said, “there needs be some screening for what makes it into circulation. ... It’s a very delicate balancing act.”
In another legislative reaction, Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, has asked attorneys to draft a bill that would make petition signatures open to public inspection under the state open records law.
“My proposal is simple: Initiative signatures – particularly those that give permission to violate constitutional rights – shall be subject to the California Public Records Act,” Rendon said in a Wednesday statement.
The Legislature’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus has written a letter to the president of the State Bar asking for an investigation into McLaughlin’s fitness to practice law. By 5 p.m. Wednesday, a petition to disbar McLaughlin had received nearly 44,500 signatures.
Caucus members commended Harris for asking a court to review McLaughlin’s plan.
Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, said the constitutionality of the measure isn’t even debatable. “It’s outlandish, unjust and out of line with California values.”
Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins said the proposal “represents either the depth of bigotry and hatred or the height of sick publicity stunts.”
“Either way it should not be dignified by becoming an official part of the process Californians have to amend the state Constitution,” Atkins said in a statement. She urged the court to grant the attorney general’s request and “prevent the state’s initiative process from being abused in this egregious manner.”
The Human Rights Campaign and Equality California also issued statements praising Harris’ action.
Still, one political activist fears she may be overreacting to one extreme case.
Charlotte Laws, an author and talk show host, submitted along with her own $200 check the proposed “Intolerant Jackass Act.” It would label anyone seeking the killing of gays and lesbians an “intolerant jackass,” and require them to attend at least 36 hours of sensitivity training over one year and to contribute $5,000 to a pro-gay or pro-lesbian organization.
“The whole point is for politicians not to have veto power over the process,” Laws said. “I hate what this guy had to say and that’s why I proposed this – to basically mock him. It’s far out there, but still, you should be able to put something forward and go though the channels.”
Harris, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, said she doesn’t view the controversy as a political issue.
“This proposal has crossed the line, and is really unconstitutional on its face, and should not receive the benefit of having a title and summary as though it has any legitimacy and should be in any seriousness reviewed by the voters of California.”
Still, she acknowledged that if the court doesn’t intervene with an order, she’ll be forced to advance the proposal.
Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.