Vol. 21 No. 6- Term Limits For District Attorneys And Assessors Declared Unconstitutional

March 16, 2006

On March 14, 2006 Superior Court Judge Soussan G. Bruguera granted a motion filed on behalf of Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley and County Assessor Rick Auerbach, to declare a county ordinance, which set term limits for their offices, unconstitutional. The motion, filed on behalf of Cooley and Auerbach by Jones & Mayer partner Martin J. Mayer , was based on the 1979 case of Younger v. Board of Supervisors, 93 Cal.App. 3d 864, which held that counties are political and legal subdivisions of the state and, as such, can do only that which is authorized by state law or the state constitution.

In Younger, the San Diego Board of Supervisors placed an initiative before the public establishing term limits on all county offices. Just as in the Los Angeles case, it was passed by a significant vote of the electorate. When challenged, however, the court ruled that the County Board of Supervisors never had the authority to place the matter before the public, since no law authorized interfering with the number of times the public can elect a county officer.

In 1993 that decision was ratified by the California Court of Appeal in the case of Cawdrey v. City of Redondo Beach, 15 Cal.App.4 th 1212, wherein the court reiterated that counties are legal subdivisions of the state and can, therefore, only perform those tasks authorized by the state.

Following the Cawdrey decision, the State Legislature amended California law by adding Government Code §25000(b). That section gives to Boards of Supervisors the authority to place an initiative before the people to set limits on the number of terms a member of the Board of Supervisors can hold office. It clearly addresses only the Board of Supervisors members themselves.

The statute does not authorize the Board to place an initiative before the people regarding the number of terms to be served by the offices of Sheriff, District Attorney or Assessor. Therefore, the only initiative which could be lawfully voted upon by the people was one to establish term limits on the Board members themselves, and only on the Board members.

It is interesting to note that, because this action affects a constitutional officer, it can only be filed by the Attorney General of the State of California . As such, as counsel for the District Attorney and the Assessor, we were required to apply to the Attorney General for permission to file the action on his behalf. The case was filed in the name of the Attorney General, on behalf of the people of the State of California . As such, we were actually fulfilling the role of a Special Deputy Attorney General in this matter.


It doesn’t affect your agency unless your agency is headed by a Sheriff, District Attorney or the Assessor. Otherwise, this is just interesting.

As always, if you wish to discuss the matter in greater detail, feel free to contact me at 714- 446-1400 or by e-mail at mjm@jones-mayer.com.