A federal appeals court panel today overturned California's term limits for state legislators, a decision that threatens to transform the political landscape of this huge state as politicians scramble for seats they thought must be surrendered.

The appeals court's decision did not address the issue of the constitutionality of term limits. Instead, the three-judge panel of the court, ruling 2 to 1, found that voters had not been made fully aware that the 1990 referendum would impose lifetime bans on officeholders whose terms had expired.

The ruling again places the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the position of reversing or stalling a voter-approved initiative in California, in this case inciting outrage among term-limit advocates and critics of judicial intervention. Term limits laws have swept much of the country, with some 19 states now embracing such limits for state legislatures and 39 imposing restrictions on terms of office for governors. The appeals court ruling could push the politically potent issue before the U.S. Supreme Court, according to legal authorities.

Today's ruling in California does not affect congressional or statewide offices, such as the one held by Gov. Pete Wilson (R), who under the state constitution must step down after his second term expires next year, and who has signaled his desire to run for president.

But it does profoundly alter the political calculus in the nation's largest state and it does so immediately for 26 state legislators in Sacramento who were about to be forced from office by term limits. That list includes two of the most powerful Democrats in the state, Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante and Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer, both of whom were set to be "termed out" next year and have been angling for other offices. The filing deadline for the 1998 state races is February.

The end of term limits could help Democrats maintain their narrow majorities in the state Senate and Assembly next year.

"I'm sure they'll be uncorking the champagne in offices all over the state," said state Sen. Jim Brulte (R) from Rancho Cucamonga. "But it may be premature."

California Secretary of State Bill Jones (R), anticipating the appeals court decision, has already asked the Supreme Court to hear the case. The appeals court panel said its ruling ending term limits would not take effect for 21 days.

The Supreme Court in 1995 ruled that states could not limit the number of terms their representatives in Congress served, saying such limits would undermine the national character of Congress and violate the Constitution. The justices have not ruled on term limits for state lawmakers.

In 1990, by a 52 percent majority, California voters passed Proposition 140, which limits state Assembly members to three two-year terms and state senators to two four-year terms, and imposes a lifelong ban against seeking the same office once the limits have been reached.

One of the most famous targets of the initiative was flamboyant Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D), who was termed-out of office after three decades in power. Brown is now mayor of San Francisco, and while he said he felt vindicated by today's ruling, he said he also is comfortable where he is. "After all of these years, I was able to have a court say I was right: term limits are unconstitutional," Brown told reporters.

In fact, the court did not address the specific constitutionality of term limits or lifelong bans, but focused on the narrower point that the term-limit proposal did not clearly state that once an elected official's term had run, he or she would be barred for life from running for that post again.

"In matters this important, the state simply must tell its citizens what they are voting for," wrote Judge Stephen Reinhardt in the majority opinion. "The Constitution requires us to invalidate an initiative if it fails to provide adequate notice to the voters that it would severely burden the people's fundamental rights." Critics of the term limit proposition had charged that the language of the initiative was unclear and incomplete and deserved to be shot down.

Judges on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Reinhardt in particular, have come to be seen as some of most liberal judicial activists in the nation, and the court has often been excoriated by critics such as Wilson for its rulings. The court has previously challenged voter-approved referenda on affirmative action and the denial of state services to illegal aliens.

Today, advocates for term limits accused the court of making an end run.

"I have some difficultly swallowing this decision. Many of us thought the panel was looking for a way to throw out term limits and this is what they came up with," said state Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R) from Garden Grove, who was scheduled to be termed-out next year.

Pringle and other critics of the court said the judges could have overturned just the lifetime ban, but kept the term limits.