Since 2011, a Morro Bay man and two local attorneys have had an ongoing challenge to California’s rules governing participation in various political committees.
The lawsuit brought against California Secretary of State Deb Bowen, state Attorney General Kamala Harris, and San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald focused on an election code dictating that would-be members of committees for the Big Three political parties—Democratic, Republican, and American Independent—take and sign an oath of loyalty to both the United States and California constitutions.
Morro Bay resident John Barta, who at the time of the lawsuit’s filing was a member of the Democratic Central Committee, argued that the rule to take an oath to the Constitution was in itself unconstitutional because it interfered with members’ free speech and association rights.
“By requiring a loyalty oath as a prerequisite to run for, or be qualified as the winner of, an election to membership on political county central committees the State is unjustifiably interfering with members’ free speech rights because it cannot be shown that requiring such an oath is necessary for it to ensure an orderly and fair election process,” the lawsuit read.
On Nov. 1, San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Martin Tangeman agreed, ruling that three of the state’s election codes requiring the oath were in fact unconstitutional.
SLO County Clerk Rodewald maintained neutrality and didn’t answer the petition, as it’s simply her duty to abide by state law, not argue its merits. In an earlier filing, however, the state conceded that Barta’s claims had merit and didn’t object to the court entering a judgment that the statutes are unconstitutional. However, the state opposed—and Tangeman stopped short of ordering—Barta’s request that the state inform all county clerks to not administer the oath and direct the attorney general to publish an opinion reversing the statutes.
“The truth is that it’s perfectly appropriate for a public official to take the oath, but political parties are protected to speak and organize freely,” San Luis Obispo-based attorney Stew Jenkins, who represented Barta, told New Times.
In contrast, oaths for smaller political parties—such as the Green, Libertarian, and Peace and Freedom party committees—were never required under the law.
Barta couldn’t be reached for comment as of press time.