California State Supreme Court
California State Supreme Court (S. Todd Rogers / The Recorder)

SACRAMENTO — The California Supreme Court late Monday removed Proposition 49 from the November ballot, saying the validity of an advisory vote on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling is “uncertain.”

A five-justice majority said the Legislature can place the measure before voters in a future election “if the court ultimately determines it is valid.” But leaving Prop 49 on the November ballot could create “substantial harm,” the majority concluded.

The decision is a blow to Democratic lawmakers, who passed legislation asking Californians whether Congress should amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, the 2010 ruling that found corporations and labor unions’ independent political expenditures are protected by the First Amendment and cannot be restricted by the government. The outcome would have carried no legal weight, but Democrats would surely have used a “yes” vote as ammunition in their ongoing efforts to gut the opinion.

“I thought it was a bizarre order,” said Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, who authored the legislation. “There is nothing in the California Constitution that prevents this Legislature from putting an advisory measure on the ballot. This, in essence, silences voters in November.”

Gov. Jerry Brown allowed the Prop 49 legislation to become law without his signature, saying that while he sympathized with lawmakers’ motivation, “we should not make it a habit to clutter our ballots with nonbinding measures as citizens rightfully assume that their votes are meant to have legal effect.”

Jonathan Coupal, president of the successful petitioner, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said that “the court recognized what Gov. Brown recognized, which was that Prop 49 was a nonsubstantive, nonlegal matter that would achieve only one goal: cluttering up the ballot box.”

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye was the court’s only vote against the order.

“By the majority’s action today, the Legislature will be deprived of knowing in a timely manner where the voters stand on the issue, perhaps influencing what further steps the Legislature will take and how much effort it would invest in the underlying effort,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote.

Proponents of what would have been Prop 49 said they will work to place the measure on the 2016 ballot. The court’s order asked for briefing in September on the validity of the measure, but acknowledged it needed to act now because of the deadline for printing ballots.

“We are confident that when we have the opportunity to provide the court with a more complete response and the court has more time to review the precedents, it will ultimately agree that Proposition 49 is a constitutional exercise of the Legislature’s authority,” said Frederic Woocher, an attorney representing the Legislature in the case.

Contact the reporter at cmiller@alm.com.