Morro Bay man wins constitutional rights lawsuit
November 4, 2013
By KAREN VELIE
A Morro Bay man won his lawsuit to have several “Joe McCarthy era” sections of the California Election Code declared unconstitutional last week, according to a San Luis Obispo County Superior Court ruling.
John Barta filed the suit against Secretary of State Debra Bowen, Attorney General Kamala Harris and San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald in 2011. Barta asked the court to strike down election code sections that forbid membership on county political party committees of the Democratic, Republican, and American Independent Party without first taking and signing a loyalty oath.
Judge Martin J. Tangeman said that each of the loyalty oath code requirements were “premised upon … violations of First Amendment rights, California constitutional free speech rights, and preemption.”
Barta’s lawyers Saro Rizzo and Stew Jenkins of San Luis Obispo filed the Petition and Complaint seeking a declaration that the statutes were unconstitutional, together with issuance of an injunction against further enforcement of the sections.
Both the county and the state defendants sought to have the suit thrown out by filing separate demurrers, but Barta’s lawyers prevailed against both demurrers.
The Secretary of State and California Attorney General continued to oppose the suit until the Oct. 28 trial when they admitted that some of Barta’s claims had merit and noted that the state would not object to the court declaring certain statutes unconstitutional.
In winning a prior case, Rizzo and Jenkins obtained the first–in-the-nation appellate court ruling holding that state legislatures have no power under the First Amendment to regulate the membership and internal operations of county political parties.
Earlier this year, Rizzo and Jenkins obtained injunctive relief and a roll back of criminal ordinances and prosecutions affecting San Luis Obispo’s homeless population in the case of SLO Homeless Alliance v. City of San Luis Obispo. Rizzo represented the Avila Alliance against Unocal Corporation in the 1990s, leading to the cleanup of Avila Beach. Jenkins recently won a First Amendment anit-SLAPP motion on behalf of Michael Brennler, former mayor of Atascadero, which resulted in the court striking a defamation lawsuit brought by Dee Torres, homeless services coordinator for Community Action Partnership for San Luis Obispo.