MORAIN: When it's right for governors not to defend ballot initiatives

O<WC1>n one of most divisive civil rights issues of the day, California Gov. Brown resisted the electorate by refusing to defend an initiative that had stripped minorities of basic rights.

By a 5-4 margin, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the governor and struck down the measure. Dissenting justices warned that the majority had undermined voters. Th<WC>e Sacramento Bee<WC1> quoted a backer saying she was <WC>"<WC1>dumbfounded<WC>"<WC1> that the court <WC>"<WC1>would say that 4.5 million people in California were wrong.<WC>"

<WC1>The governor was Pat Brown, not Jerry, and the case involved a discriminatory housing initiative, Proposition 14 of 1964, not marriage equality, the focus of the high court's Proposition 8 ruling two weeks ago opening the way for same-sex marriages in California.

Reprising a play from 50 years earlier, Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris refused to defend Proposition 8. That forced its backers to hire their own attorneys. By a 5-4 vote, the court held that Proposition 8's supporters weren't directly affected when gays and lesbians marry and had no standing to sue.

To hear initiative entrepreneurs tell it, the decision threatens the core of direct democracy. Politicians will be able to block initiatives simply by not defending them, they warn. For evidence, they cite Justice Anthony Kennedy's dissent.

<WC>"<WC1>Giving the governor and attorney general this de facto veto will erode the cornerstones of the state's governmental structure,<WC>"<WC1> Kennedy wrote. <WC>"<WC1>And in light of the frequency with which initiatives' opponents resort to litigation, the impact of that veto could be substantial.<WC>"<WC1> In the 100-year history of California initiatives, however, these are the two instances in which governors refused to defend initiatives before the U.S. Supreme Court. The governors were absolutely right to refuse to act.

Proposition 14 involved a volatile mix of economic interests, property, discrimination and integration. It helped end Pat Brown's career and lead to Ronald Reagan's rise.

In his 1963 inaugural address, Brown called for legislation to end bigoted practices in which real estate agents and apartment owners could refuse to sell or rent to minorities.

Assemblyman W. Byron Rumford, a Berkeley Democrat, carried the Fair Housing Act in 1963. The battle lines are familiar to anyone who pays attention to state politics now.

The California Labor Federation, and civil rights and church groups embraced the Rumford act. Lobbyists representing real estate agents and apartment owners worked to kill it. Their tactics included drafting a property owners' bill of rights equating discrimination with freedom.

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