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The City of Santa Monica is gearing up for a showdown next month, as Malibu lawyer Kevin Shenkman prepares to take them to trial July 30 over City Council elections. Santa Monica is the first California city to challenge Shenkman regarding the California Voting Rights Act since Palmdale was forced to change to district elections in 2015. The settlement in that case required the city to pay $4.5 million in attorney’s fees for the plaintiffs.

Since the Palmdale decision, a mere letter from Shenkman’s firm has led to election overhauls in about 40 cities, as municipalities seek to avoid a protracted and expensive legal battle. The lawsuits and letters are based on a 2001 state expansion of federal rules that make it easier for minority groups to prove their votes are diluted in “at large” elections.

“In 2016, Palmdale had its first district elections and elected its first Latino Democrat ever,“ Shenkman said. “It’s amazing to see the level of development and improvement on that portion of the city that had been ignored for decades.”

The plaintiffs in the case are the Pico Neighborhood Association, including co-chair Oscar de la Torre and his wife Maria Loya.

Lawyers for the City of Santa Monica say since Latino voters are spread throughout the city, the CVRA doesn’t apply here. In March, lawyers attempted to avoid trial by filing a motion for summary judgment, arguing local Latino voters “can and do exercise their full voting power to elect the City Council candidates they prefer.” Current City Council Member and former Mayor Tony Vazquez, for example, is a Latino-preferred candidate.

However, a stumble by attorneys at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP snowballed into a major misstep last week when Shenkman noticed they failed to serve him documents by the correct date.

“It floored me when I looked at the calendar and figured out they were late,” Shenkman told the Daily Press. “This is something a first-year attorney shouldn’t be screwing up and they have a lot of experience over there with thousands of attorneys.”

The Judge presiding over the case, Yvette M. Palazuelos, was not persuaded by Gibson Dunn attorneys’ arguments that they had emailed Shenkman the documents on time. Palazuelos did not weigh in on the merits of the City’s motion when she dismissed it.

“We believe the trial court erred in declining to consider the City’s summary judgment motion on the merits,” said Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a partner at Gibson Dunn and counsel for the city. “We are considering options, which include asking the Court of Appeal to reverse the decision. But whatever happens on this procedural issue, we remain confident that the City is going to prevail on the merits.”

Shenkman has hired a ‘districting guru,’ whose firm, Compass Demographics, has drawn voting districts for Whittier, Garden Grove, Costa Mesa and others to demonstrate how to give Latinos a more powerful voting block in Santa Monica. David Ely’s proposed outline for the Pico Neighborhood would combine parts of Mid-City and create a district that is 30 percent Latino and 10 percent black, according to Shenkman.

“You don’t need a Latino-majority district to be effective,” Shenkman said. “What he found is, the Latino-preferred candidates usually lose in the city as a whole but they usually win in that illustrative Pico neighborhood district. That demonstrates, even with 30 percent Latino population, that district would solve the problem.”

Santa Monica voters have rejected two ballot initiatives that would have changed the local voting system to district elections. Judge Palazuelos will preside over the trial in July.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press