The City of Santa Monica has officially lost the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit.
Future City Council elections will be determined by a seven-district map drawn by the plaintiffs in the case, Maria Loya and the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA), according to a final ruling Judge Yvette Palazuelos issued Friday. Palazuelos wrote in the ruling that the City’s former at-large election system suppressed the voting power of Santa Monica’s Latino population, which has historically clustered in the Pico neighborhood.
Palazuelos’ final ruling reinforces the amended tentative ruling she issued last month. In the decision, she ordered the City to hold a district-based special election July 2 to elect seven new councilmembers because the current councilmembers were elected through unlawful elections.
Palazuelos wrote in the ruling that the court found a consistent pattern of racially-polarized voting over the past 24 years in City Council elections.
“In most elections where the choice is available, Latino voters strongly prefer a Latino candidate running for … city council, but, despite that support, the preferred Latino candidate loses,” she wrote. “As a result, though Latino candidates are generally preferred by the Latino electorate in Santa Monica, only one Latino has been elected to the Santa Monica City Council in the 72 years of the current election system — 1 out 2 of 71 to serve on the city council.”
Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., one of the lawyers representing the City, said the City is considering all options, including appealing the decision in California’s appellate courts. He said the court’s final ruling will hurt minority voting rights by diluting the voting power of Latinos and other minorities citywide. Recent studies have shown that in most instances, California cities that have transitioned to district elections have seen no increase in the number of city council seats held by minorities, Boutrous added.
“The final ruling is wrong in other respects as well,” he said. “It rubber stamps the plaintiffs’ misguided and unsupported view of the law, ignores the history of Santa Monica’s election system and the success of minority-preferred candidates in that system, deprives the electorate of any public process for the districts drawn, and violates the federal and California Constitutions.”
PNA co-chair and plaintiff Oscar de la Torre said the ruling will empower minorities in Santa Monica and hopes the City will not appeal.
“We are happy for the city of Santa Monica because this victory is a win for the entire city, for all of us who want a more inclusive government and a stronger democracy. We look forward to positive change,” he said. “We hope the City of Santa Monica does not waste more money in an appeal and instead uses those precious public funds to address the rising crime in the City of Santa Monica.”
Kevin Shenkman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Santa Monica will no longer have a City Council by Aug. 16 if the City appeals the court’s judgment because the final ruling stipulates that any councilmembers elected in at-large elections may not serve past Aug. 15.
“If the City disregards the court’s judgment as it has threatened to, there will be consequences,” he said.
City Manager Rick Cole has said that the California Voter Participation Rights Act (CVPRA), which requires municipalities with low voter turnout to hold elections at the same time as statewide races to increase turnout, would require a special district-based election to be held in either March or November.
City Attorney Lane Dilg has also said the California Elections Code mandates a public participation process for establishing districts and adopting the districts proposed by the plaintiffs would deprive residents of that input.
But Shenkman said appellant courts in CVRA and federal voting rights cases have ruled that courts have the power to order municipalities to hold special elections as soon as possible and remove all members of their governing boards.
“We look forward to the election for all City Council seats on July 2,” he said. “We’re absolutely thrilled the court saw through Santa Monica’s phony liberal facade and recognized that the city for the past 70-plus years has been violating the voting rights of its Latino residents.”
This article was updated Feb. 15 at 5:41 p.m.