For less than the cost of an Apple iPad, Matt McLaughlin started a statewide legal conversation.
An attorney from Huntington Beach, McLaughlin in late February spent $200 to propose a ballot measure that authorizes the killing of gays and lesbians by “bullets to the head,” or “any other convenient method.”
McLaughlin’s “Sodomite Suppression Act” now is testing the limits of free speech and raising the question: Why can’t the state’s initiative process screen out blatantly illegal ideas?
The Legislature’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus wrote a letter to the State Bar, asking for an investigation into McLaughlin’s fitness to practice law. More than 3,800 people signed a petition to State Bar President Craig Holden asking that McLaughlin lose his law license for advocating to “legalize the murder” of gays and lesbians.
Yet the measure is likely to proceed to the signature-gathering stage. At the moment, its fate rests with state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is charged with writing a title and summary for the proposal. Legal experts say she has little choice but to let the process continue and that McLaughlin is unlikely to face professional repercussions.
Over the years, the $200 price tag for submitting an initiative has enabled California political activists to draft and submit thousands of orphan causes: eliminating divorce, requiring public schools to offer Christmas caroling, making criminals of those who lie during political campaigns.
Carol Dahmen, a media consultant in Sacramento who started the petition to disbar McLaughlin, argues that this one is different. Along with disbarment, Dahmen wants to draw attention to reforming the system, calling McLaughlin the “poster boy of what is still wrong with the initiative process.”
“It’s an interesting discussion about free speech, and I get that,” Dahmen said. “But this is a lawyer, and he’s advocating for murder.”
To begin collecting signatures for a ballot measure, advocates must first submit their idea, along with $200, to the attorney general’s office. As of Sunday, the office had received 125 public comments as officials consider whether to draft the title and 100-word summary for McLaughlin’s measure.
Legal experts point to a 1978 case in which then-Attorney General Evelle Younger rejected a measure he believed dealt with multiple subjects. The proponent sued, and the state Supreme Court ruled that Younger did not have the authority to delay or impede the initiative process while claims of a measure’s invalidity are determined.
Asked what authority Harris might have to block the current measure, political and election lawyer Tom Hiltachk said, “None.” He said the process of issuing a title and summary to an initiative proponent is a ministerial act and is not subject to discretion.