Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California Senate roiled by two criminal cases

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

One seat was conspicuously empty when the state Senate convened Monday because Sen. Ron Calderon was, to use the official parlance, “excused on personal business.”

His “personal business” was being arraigned in Los Angeles on federal corruption charges that could imprison him for decades.

After the charges against Calderon, a Montebello Democrat, were announced on Friday, the Senate’s Democrats quickly declared that they want him to resign or take a leave of absence.

If he doesn’t, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said, “the Senate will seek to suspend him.” But on Monday, after another powwow, the Democrats gave Calderon another week to respond to their threat.

A leave would be tantamount to resignation because Calderon has only nine months remaining in office, thanks to term limits.

Were there a plea deal sooner, Calderon would have to resign anyway because Government Code Section 1770(h) plainly says that when an officeholder is convicted of a felony, the office is automatically vacant.

Why then, one might ask, is Sen. Rod Wright, D-Los Angeles, still sitting in the Senate when a jury found him guilty of felony perjury?

Well, it’s because the verdict doesn’t become final until ratified by the trial judge and he’s sentenced, which has been postponed until May 16.

Why then, one might also ask, do Steinberg et al. want Calderon, who hasn’t been convicted of anything, to disappear while they still embrace Wright?

Ostensibly, it has to do with the gravity of the crimes involved, but that’s splitting legal hairs, and since he’s not yet convicted, Calderon may have a better claim for remaining than Wright does.

In fact, when other legislators faced similar charges in years past, none was forced out until convicted.

This situation may reflect Senate arithmetic. Without Calderon, Democrats would still have – barely – a two-thirds majority and be able, at least on paper, to pass constitutional amendments, tax increases and other special legislation.

But won’t the supermajority vanish when Wright is sentenced in May, if Calderon is also gone?

Steinberg had hinted that the Senate might ignore Section 1770(h) and keep Wright in the Senate pending appeal, based on the state constitution’s provision (Art. IV, Sec. 5a) that “each house shall judge the qualifications … of its members.”

Section 1770.1 specifically says that an appeal of a conviction does not prevent a convicted felon’s office from being vacated.

However – perhaps because of mounting criticism and Republican threats to push the issue – Steinberg declared for the first time Monday that should Wright’s motion to void the verdict fail and he be sentenced, “he can no longer remain in the state Senate.”

Were the Senate to do otherwise, the backlash would be even stronger than it is now – and rightfully so.