The California Supreme Court today removed a Republican-backed initiative from the March ballot that would have asked voters to give the court instead of the Democratic-controlled state legislature the power to redraw district boundaries.

The decision sets the stage for California Democrats to redraw the state's congressional and legislative districts after the 2000 census in a manner favorable to their party in time for elections in 2002.

Political observers assume, with history as their guide, that Democrats, as the party in power here, will carve up the state in such a way as to favor Democratic candidates at the expense of Republicans. Some GOP politicians and activists talk openly about the prospect for their party being "annihilated" by a Democratic gerrymander.

At present, Democrats hold 28 of California's 52 seats in the U.S. House and both Senate seats. They also now control the governor's office, the state Senate (holding 24 of 40 seats) and the state Assembly (where Democrats outnumber Republicans 47 to 32).

"This is great news for the people of California and really bad news for Republicans in Washington," said Erik Smith of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It's a major setback for the GOP."

Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said the ruling was significant because the majority of judges on the state Supreme Court were appointed by Republicans. He said any redistricting plan has to stand up to court challenges.

But "it's obvious any redistricting plan would favor Democrats, because Democrats are more prevalent in the state," Torres said.

The state Supreme Court ruled that Proposition 24 violates the state constitution's rule that ballot initiatives can deal only with a single issue. Proposition 24 would have asked voters not only to transfer power to redistrict from the legislature to the court, but also would have asked voters to cut legislators' pay from $99,000 to $75,000, reduce their expense money and dock their pay if the state budget is late.

The legislative pay-cut provision was disparaged as a "sweetener" by Supreme Court Justice Marvin Baxter, a lure designed to attract votes to the new redistricting scheme, which has been rejected by voters three times in the past. The high court has removed only five other initiatives from the California ballot. The last was a balanced budget measure rejected in 1984.

Proposition 24 was being spearheaded by Ted Costa, a Republican with the anti-tax group People's Advocate in Sacramento. Costa spent about $2 million gathering 1 million signatures to put the measure on the March ballot. About $1.3 million came from the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Costa's measure won support from California Republicans in Congress over another one floated by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz. Unz is sponsoring a measure in March that would reform and restrict campaign financing. Unz offered to place his own redistricting measure on the ballot if congressional Republicans would support his campaign finance measure. They refused, so Unz left them to Costa.

Will the Democrats gerrymander?

"I have no doubt about it," Costa said. "Let's be fair about it, though. Republicans will gerrymander Democrats out of office wherever they are in control, like they're going to try to do in Florida."

Costa today pledged to gather signatures to put two new measures before the voters that would separate the legislators' salary initiative from the redistricting measure. But he conceded the effort looked to him like "40 miles of bad road," which will cost as much as $4 million in signature-gathering.

The earliest any new redistricting measure could go before voters is November 2000. The California legislature will perform its redistricting duties--unless it is stopped--in 2001. With California's population still growing, the state will probably pick up another two or three congressional seats, making a Democratic-controlled gerrymander all the more worrisome for Republicans.