Vol. 19 No. 15- Term Limits And The County Sheriff

November 19, 2004

In March, 2002, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors placed an initiative before the public to establish term limits on the offices of the Board members themselves, as well as the Sheriff, District Attorney and Assessor. The public approved the measure by a vote of 61% – 39%;  the measure, however, was unconstitutional as it applied to the Sheriff, D.A. and Assessor. Prior to the election the office of Jones & Mayer was retained by L.A. County Sheriff Leroy Baca to prevent the measure from being placed on the ballot.  A lawsuit was filed but the court ruled that it could not prevent it from being placed before the electorate. However, if it passed the Sheriff could then challenge it on the basis that it was unconstitutional, and that is what occurred.

Following the election, the L.A. County Charter was amended to include the term limitations. Only Sheriff Baca moved forward to challenge the charter provision, even though it was highly unlikely that it would have affected him personally – based on the provision, Sheriff Baca would have had another 12 years before the term limit would be imposed on him. However, in the Sheriff’s opinion it was a matter of principle and he did not want to leave the charter provision in place for future sheriffs. It wasn’t that the Sheriff didn’t believe the public could set term limits if it chose to do so, it was just that the current law did not allow for it.

The issue involves the authority of a charter county and the fact that it is only permitted to do that which is specifically authorized by the California Constitution and/or state law.  In 1979, the County of San Diego placed an initiative on the ballot to also set term limits for its county officers. That also passed by a vote of approximately 60% – 40%, but was subsequently challenged by the then California Attorney General, Evel Younger. In the case of Younger v. County of San Diego, the Court of Appeal ruled that there was neither constitutional nor legislative authority for the Board of Supervisors to interfere with the public’s decision regarding how long its elected officers could serve, by placing an initiative before them establishing term limits. That decision was reaffirmed by another Court of Appeal decision in 1995 in the case ofCawdrey v. City of Redondo Beach.

Following the Cawdrey decision, the state legislature amended Government Code sec. 25000 to allow any Board of Supervisors, in either general law or chartered counties, to place an initiative before the public to set term limits on the board members, but only as to them.  The law did NOT authorize setting term limits for the Office of the Sheriff (nor the D.A. or Assessor).  On October 4, 2004, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Andria K. Richey ruled that, based on those two prior Court of Appeal decisions, the amendment to the charter was “null and void” as it applied to the Sheriff.  (Neither the D.A. nor the Assessor were parties to the suit and, therefore, the decision does not have an impact on them). Obviously, the County of Los Angeles could have appealed the decision to the Court of Appeal in an effort to have it overturned.  However, the Board decided unanimously to NOT file such an appeal and accepted the decision of the court. As a result, it will be necessary for L.A. County to amend its charter and remove reference to term limits and the Sheriff, thus ending a three year struggle to correct an error made by them in the first place.


Although a decision by a Superior Court is not binding on any other court in California, it’s logic can be relied upon. It can also be reviewed by other counties if they are planning on taking similar action.  Before any term limit can be established regarding the Office of the Sheriff, anywhere in the State of California, it would first be necessary for the legislature to amend G.C. sec. 25000 to add that office to existing law.  Until and unless that occurs, term limits cannot be imposed on Sheriffs – with the obvious exception of the public’s ability to choose at the ballot box. Term limits have always existed – each elected official gets to serve one term, unless re-elected by the public.