Monday, March 18, 2019

Boyer v. Ventura County (Cal. Ct. App. - March 18, 2019)

The result of today's opinion by Justice Yegan seems right to me.  Though, respectfully, I think he dramatically overstates the case.

For over a century, the rule was that you could run to be a County Sheriff with the same qualifications you needed to run for virtually any other political office.  Which is to say:  None.  You don't have to be smart to be, say, the Mayor.  So you also didn't have to be smart -- or qualified, or competent, or potty trained -- to be the Sheriff.  The voters got to decide.

But in 1988, after 150 years of things working out just fine relying on the voters, the Legislature decided to limit who could become a County Sheriff, and imposed some minimal qualifications for the office.

The Court of Appeal upholds those limitations.  And Justice Yegan waxes poetic about their utility, saying (among other things):

"We are quick to observe a common sense reason why appellant cannot prevail. Experience is the best teacher. This is true whether you are a plumber, a teacher, a doctor, or a lawyer. It also applies to being the elected sheriff of a county where there are several hundred deputy sheriffs and several hundred non-sworn personnel to supervise. It does not matter how intelligent you are or if you are acting in good faith. There is a good reason why the Legislature has imposed an experience requirement. To get a “feel” for law enforcement, i.e., coming to a true understanding of it, you must learn about it in the field by doing it. The people of California have been well served by personnel who have worked their way up the chain of command to leadership."

I'm not going to quibble with the underlying concept.  Experience is often indeed helpful.  At least all other things being equal.  Mind you, if the voters feel like electing someone with less experience -- an "outsider," perhaps -- I'm fine with that too.  Sometimes experience is good, and sometimes it's good to instead get someone who perhaps brings a fresh perspective that's not been formed (and/or jaded) by prior work in the area.

Which is why, for example, we don't have any service qualifications to become, say, President of the United States.  If you've got a pulse, are 35 years old (14 of which were spent here) , and are a natural born citizen, you can control the world.  If you can convince the voters that you should.

So, to me, I'm not a thousand percent positive that there are "good reasons" by the Legislature has imposed an experience requirement.  The world might (or might not) be a better place without them, relying instead (as we did for 150 years) on the intelligence of the voters to decide what role, if any, any particular degree of experience should be required.

That said, I am also fairly confident that it was rational for the Legislature to impose the experiential requirements it imposed.  Since that's all that seems to be required under the California Constitution, the result of today's opinion -- that the statute is constitutional -- works for me.  Even though I'm not entirely simpatico with Justice Yegan's certainty that experience is necessarily essential.

At the same time, I'm also confident that I affirmatively disagree with the Court of Appeal's apparent belief that the particular requirements here manifestly make sense.  Or, to put it differently, that there is no way to get a "true understanding" of the role of a county sheriff any way other than by "doing it," or that the particular experiential requirements imposed by the Legislature ensure that candidates have "worked their way up the chain of command to leadership."

Because, in truth, the Legislature's experiential requirements are incredibly minimal.  Spend a year as a marshal for a magistrate in a federal civil courtroom, having never pulled your gun or gotten out of your chair? You're qualified.  Spend 12 months as an investigator for a district attorney?  Good to go. Work a year with Fish & Game making sure people bought their fishing licenses?  Welcome to being County Sheriff.  All of these people are qualified.  Seems to me to overstate the case by saying that all of these people necessarily "know the field" than, say, a professor of criminal justice who's worked in the area for 30 years, or a civilian member of the Police Review Board (or maybe even a criminal defense attorney) who's had a quarter century of exposure to a wide variety of police practice.

And that's probably even true for candidates with actual police experience.  For example, under the statute, if you spend 12 months as the sole police officer in, say, Amador City (population: 125), you can be County Sheriff.  Maybe County Sheriff of, say, Alpine County (population: 1057).  Your year of work as the sole officer in a sleepy town of 125 hardly constitutes "work[ing] [your] way up the chain of command to leadership."  Nor does a candidate for the Alpine County Sheriff position, I imagine, constitute an office "where there are several hundred deputy sheriffs and several hundred non-sworn personnel to supervise."

Seems to me that a voter might well reasonably say, "Yeah, I'm not so sure that Ice-T has much experience in the area, but, hey, he plays a cop on television, and I don't think that Barney Fife guy who's running against him is all that hot, so I'm going with the big guy."  In short; experience can be way, way overrated.

Including by the Court of Appeal.

But, to reiterate, it's rational to require some degree of experience.  Could reasonable minds differ?  Sure.  And undeniably do.  But since the statute has a rational basis, and the Constitution doesn't seem to affirmatively exclude Legislative requirements for the position (e.g., by imposing its own), that's dispositive.

No need to wax poetic about the manifest wisdom of the underlying rule.  Since, at least to me, the merits of such a requirement seem a much closer call.