The plaintiffs supplied a seven-district election map.

The city of Santa Monica filed its opening brief Friday in the appellate phase of the voting rights case initiated by Latino residents who allege the city’s election system dilutes their voting power.

A trial court issued a final judgment in February that the city’s at-large election system resulted in City Councils that did not represent Santa Monica’s Latino population, which has historically clustered in the Pico neighborhood, and therefore violated the California Voting Rights Act. The ruling ordered the city to hold a special election on July 2 to elect councilmembers to represent seven neighborhoods of the city based on a map drawn by the plaintiffs, Maria Loya and the Pico Neighborhood Association.

The city appealed the ruling and applied to halt the special election until the appellate court issues a decision by July 10, 2020.

Ted Boutrous of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, the city’s appellate counsel, said the city’s initial brief argues that the trial court applied legally incorrect standards in determining the existence of racially polarized voting and vote dilution.

In identifying Latino voters’ preferred candidates, the court focused on the ethnicity of candidates, rather than the preferences of Latino voters, Boutrous said. It also ignored that Latino-preferred candidates usually win City Council elections and assumed that Latino voters prefer only Latino-surnamed candidates, he added. 

“We are looking forward to the Court of Appeal taking a fresh look at this case,” he Boutrous said. “The trial court improperly rubber-stamped the plaintiffs’ misguided and unsupported view of the law, ignored the history of Santa Monica’s election system and the success of minority-preferred candidates in that system, deprived the electorate of any public process for the districts drawn, and violated the federal and California Constitutions.”

The brief asserts that the trial court’s chosen remedy — compelling the City to conduct elections using a seven-district map drawn by respondents’ expert — violates section 10010 of the Elections Code, which requires a democratic process, including public hearings, on districting before any “court-imposed change from an at-large method of election to a district-based election” takes effect.

“No such hearings have taken place in Santa Monica — a result inconsistent with the democratic process called for by the statute,” Boutrous said. “Residents have been deprived of their opportunity to provide input into the new electoral system.”

In the trial court’s statement of decision, Judge Yvette Palazuelos said the city had almost three years while the case was pending to hold a public input process to determine district borders. She also wrote that the city could have held that process as late as November of last year, when she issued her tentative judgment in the case.

The plaintiff’s attorney Kevin Shenkman said the argument that the court should have analyzed Latino-preferred candidates instead of Latino candidates goes against the precedent set by the Supreme Court and California courts in determining the existence of racially polarized voting.

“When Latino voters favor Latino candidates and they lose, that’s racially polarized voting,” Shenkman said.

He said the plaintiffs will file a brief in response to the city’s opening brief within 40 days, although he said they might ask for a brief extension.

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