Plaintiff Maria Loya led a protest in March 2019 to urge the city to rethink its planned appeal of the CVRA case. (File photo)

The plaintiffs in a voting rights case against the city of Santa Monica have filed a brief asking the California Court of Appeals to uphold a trial court ruling that found the city’s voting system discriminates against Latino residents.

In the Dec. 27 brief, which was filed in response to the opening appellate brief the city filed two months prior, lead attorney Kevin Shenkman wrote that the trial court already weighed the evidence — “5064 pages of live trial testimony and 428 trial exhibits, as well as voluminous briefing from the parties” — and found that the city’s election system violated the California Voting Rights Act by limiting Latino voting power.

“The city’s appeal largely ignores the extensive evidentiary record relied upon by the trial court, that court’s findings, and the explicit language of the CVRA,” Shenkman wrote.

The trial court ruled in February that Santa Monica’s at-large election system, in which the entire population votes for all seven City Council members, discriminated against the city’s Latino community, which has historically clustered in the Pico neighborhood. The plaintiffs, Maria Loya and the Pico Neighborhood Association, say Latino residents have been unable to elect their preferred candidates because their votes are drowned out by ballots cast by the city’s white residents, who comprise 76% of the population.

The city appealed the court’s chosen remedy, which would compel the city to conduct elections using a seven-district map drawn by the plaintiffs’ expert. One of the districts would be a Latino “influence” Pico neighborhood district, where 30% of Latino voters in the city reside.

The appellate court ruled that the city will not have to hold a district election until the court issues a final decision by July 10, 2020.

In the response brief, Shenkman urged the appellate court to uphold the trial court’s chosen remedy to Santa Monica’s pattern of racially polarized voting. He wrote in the brief that only one Latino, Tony Vazquez, has ever been elected to the City Council, even though the trial court found that Latino voters typically support Latino candidates.

“This lack of representation for Latinos, who are 16% of the city’s population and most concentrated in the city’s Pico neighborhood, meant they were powerless to stop the city from dissecting their community with a freeway and turning their home into the city’s toxic waste and trash dump site,” Shenkman wrote.

But the city’s Oct. 28 opening appellate brief argues that the trial court was misguided in how it analyzed Latino voting power. Lead attorney Theodore Boutrous said the court focused on whether Latino-surnamed candidates won City Council seats rather than whether candidates preferred by Latino residents were elected.

“The court’s myopic focus on candidates’ ethnicities caused it to ignore numerous instances, including in elections involving Latino candidates, of Latino voters genuinely preferring non-Latino candidates,” Boutrous wrote in the brief.

The city’s opening brief also asserts that the trial court’s chosen remedy violates section 10010 of the California Elections Code, which requires a democratic process before any “court-imposed change from an at-large method of election to a district-based election” takes effect. (The trial court judge, Yvette Palazuelos, said the city had ample time while the case was pending to hold a public process to determine district borders.)

Both the plaintiffs and the city will present oral arguments in the next phase of the appeal.

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