Voters cast their ballots at City Hall during an election. (File photo)

The City of Santa Monica will not hold a district-based election or vacate its City Council until an appellate court rules on the voting rights case it has been fighting for almost two years, the California Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.

Judge Yvette Palazuelos ruled Feb. 15 that the City of Santa Monica’s at-large election system violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) because it suppresses the voting power of the Santa Monica’s Latino population. The ruling prohibited councilmembers who were elected in at-large elections from serving past Aug. 15 and ordered the City to hold a special election on July 2 to elect councilmembers according to a seven-district map drawn by the plaintiffs in the case, Maria Loya and the Pico Neighborhood Association.

The City appealed the final ruling, automatically halting the order to hold new elections, but it was legally unclear whether Palazuelos’ order for current members to vacate their seats would also be stayed pending appeal. Palazuelos declined to issue a stay on that part of her order but the California Court of Appeals granted a ruling in the City’s favor on Wednesday clarifying current councilmembers would be able to retain their seats.

Acting Presiding Justice Elizabeth A. Grimes signed the order, which grants an automatic stay pending the disposition of the appeal.

“We very much appreciate the Court’s ruling,” said Theodore Boutrous, one of the attorneys representing the City. “The City’s electoral system is fair and inclusive and constitutional and the Court’s decision today keeps that system in place while the City’s appeal proceeds.”

It will be at least one year before oral arguments can be heard in appellate court, according to the City’s attorneys.

“The court seems to have agreed with the defendant’s view that procedural rule providing that mandatory injunctions are stayed pending appeal applies to paragraph 9 of the final ruling, which prohibits council members from serving beyond August,” said Kevin Shenkman, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “While we have a different view, we respect the court’s decision. Ultimately, the stay only deserves to delay the inevitable.”

Councilmember Kevin McKeown said the stay will give the City time to have a public input process if it is eventually required to move to district elections.

“It’s the right decision for residents because it avoids an expensive, disruptive, low-turnout election,” he said.

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