The California Supreme Court in February heard oral arguments in a California Environmental Quality Act case for the first time since 1997. But members of the court gave few indications of how they would rule in the case, which centers on the lack of an environmental review for a city-sponsored ballot measure. Justices peppered attorneys on either side of Friends of Sierra Madre v. City of Sierra Madre, No. S085088, with questions throughout the hour-long proceedings in Sacramento. Afterward, lawyers declined to speculate on how the court might rule. In late 1999, the Second District Court of Appeal threw out the results of a 1998 election in Sierra Madre because the city violated CEQA. Sierra Madre voters approved a city-sponsored ballot measure removing 29 homes from the city's Register of Historic Landmarks. The court found that the removal of the properties from the landmarks list required environmental review because of potential adverse impacts to historical resources. The city contended ballot measures were exempt from CEQA, but the court distinguished between measures voluntarily placed on the ballot by the City Council and ballot measures that qualify via voter petitions. The appellate court said that when a City Council places a city-sponsored measure before voters, the council is making a discretionary decision that is subject to environmental review. During oral arguments before the State Supreme Court, Donald Sobelman, the city's attorney, argued that CEQA and its Guidelines make no such distinction. "When the voters make the decision, CEQA does not apply," he told the justices. When Justice Ming Chin asked what authorized such an exemption, Sobelman cited Natural Resources Code § 21065, which addresses the definition of a project, and § 21080, which deals with CEQA exemptions. And several times, Sobelman pointed to the court's own decision in DeVita v. County of Napa, 9 Cal.4th 763. Justice Stanley Mosk's opinion in the landmark DeVita case said that ballot measures are not subject to CEQA review, Sobelman argued. "This is a matter of crucial importance to California cities. For more than 25 years they have relied upon the Guidelines to place initiatives before the voters," Sobelman said. Chief Justice Ronald George asked if the city placed the measure on the ballot to avoid preparing an environmental impact report. Sobelman said no. The delisting was not a project under CEQA, he said, because "the delisting does not remove environmental protections." Justice Joyce Kennard said the city was taking an inconsistent position. During earlier proceedings, the city did not dispute that delisting the properties was a project for CEQA purposes. Sobelman said that the city did not dispute that point at the trial level but did so in briefs before the high court because Friends of Sierra Madre raised the issued. He said there was no project because the City Council took no action and granted no entitlement. But Susan Brandt-Hawley, attorney for Friends, argued that delisting the properties was indeed a project under CEQA because it removed two protections in the City Code for historic properties. She cited the court's most recent CEQA decision in Mountain Lion Foundation v. Fish & Game Comm'n, 16 Cal.4th 105 (1997), in which the court ruled that removing protections for a species triggered an environmental review. Several justices' questions probed the practical differences between a city-sponsored ballot measure and a citizen initiative. Does not, asked Justice Janice Rogers Brown, the electoral process achieve the same end as CEQA, namely informing the public? Not in this case, responded Brandt-Hawley. Voters were not told of specific impacts to historical resources, she said. A bit later, she said that voters expect measures placed on the ballot by elected officials to have received some level of environmental review. Joining Brandt-Hawley before the high court was Deputy Attorney General Christine Sproul, while Attorney General Bill Lockyer watched from the audience. Sproul took issue with the city's "calculated strategy" to avoid CEQA. That charge drew an immediate question from Justice Kennard, who asked what evidence Sproul had. Sproul pointed to a city staff report and a City Council meeting transcript as proof that the city used the electoral process to avoid the costs of an environmental impact report. The appellate court had cited the same evidence in making its decision. But, asked Justice Kathryn Werdegar, what is wrong with saving money if it is allowed by law? Sproul said it is not allowed by law in this case. "The Legislature has been clear in applying CEQA to decision-makers," Sproul said. The law differentiates between decision-makers and voters. "They [city councilmembers] are taking an affirmative action to place the measure before voters," she said, later adding, "Should the court sanction the city's actions, we would have grave concerns." In a closing response, city attorney Sobelman dismissed the notion that properties removed from the Register of Historic Landmarks could be substantially altered without environmental review. The City Council placed the measure on the ballot "to avoid CEQA too early in the process," he argued. "No one in Sierra Madre thinks there will not be CEQA review before demolition," he added. After oral arguments, Sobelman said he believes the case is clear-cut: the Legislature has given citizens authority to decide such matters on their own. Attorney Michael Zischke, who has helped represent Sierra Madre during the litigation, said the case could set an important precedent for cities. A number of major projects have been approved by ballot measure, including baseball and football stadiums in San Francisco, Zischke said. But Brandt-Hawley said a city victory would set a dangerous precedent. "It would be inviting cities to dodge CEQA," she said. The state Supreme Court is expected to rule by early May.