Timing and the La Malfa Vacancy

How much does a single day matter? Sometimes, a surprising amount.

Doug La Malfa

Take, for example, the case of the currently vacant 4th Senate District. The incumbent, Senator Doug La Malfa, resigned on the final night of the 2011-12 legislative session in order to allow consolidation of the special election with the November General Election.

California law sets the terms for State Senators at four years, and (for those who have previously served in the legislature) limits officeholders to two terms. The only exception is for legislators who are elected in Special Elections and serve less than half of the term to which they were elected. Speaking of the Term Limits law, the California Constitution (Art. XX, Sect. 7) reads “Those limitations shall not apply to any unexpired term to which a person is elected or appointed if the remainder of the term is less than half of the full term.”

So if an individual begins serving in the Senate right before the halfway point, they get to serve slightly more than two years in their first term and then four full years of their second term (for a total of six years). Alternatively, if their service doesn’t begin until right after the halfway point, they get to serve just under two years of their first term and then two full four-year terms (for a total of ten years).

In 2003, Don Perata argued that although he won a special election in the first half of a Senate term, his postponing of the inauguration until just after the midpoint created a delay in the starting of the clock (and gave him an additional term in the Senate). He was successful and ended up serving ten years in the Senate.

The issue is coming up again in this special election. The term to which La Malfa was elected to in 2010 began on December 6, 2010 and will end November 30, 2014. That’s a total of 1,456 days, meaning that the halfway point in the term comes at the end of the 728th day of the term. In this case, that’s December 3, 2012, the first day of the 2013-14 legislative session.

If the SD-04 Special Election goes to a run-off, this isn’t an issue; the second election would fall in early January (after the midpoint of the term). But if someone is able to win the election outright in November, it would probably be worth putting off the inauguration by a day to secure an additional four years in office.