The Pico Neighborhood Association has asked the California Supreme Court to review its case against the City of Santa Monica following an appeal court ruling that upheld the city’s at-large voting system.
The city was sued by the Pico Neighborhood Association & Maria Loya alleging the at-large system discriminated against Latino residents. The plaintiffs filed a California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit and initially won the case. However the city appealed and a three judge panel ruled in the City’s favor in July.
Following the mandatory waiting period, the plaintiffs submitted their request for review to the California Supreme Court citing two issues.
In his filing, attorney Kevin Shenkman said the appeal court ruling would fundamentally contradict a provision of the California Voting Rights Act and that the court used an improper process for making its decision.
Shenkman states the CVRA does not require a majority-minority district and that the Court of Appeal’s ruling effectively does require a district be majority-minority.
“In light of these provisions, did the Court of Appeal misconstrue and improperly limit the CVRA by holding that in order to establish a violation, plaintiffs must prove that in a district election system the protected class would have the ability to elect candidates of its choice by demonstrating that it is possible to create a geographically compact district in which a majority of the voters are members of the protected class?” he wrote in the petition.
Shenkman states the opinion ignores the trial court’s findings that the proposed district system would increase Latino voting power.
“The Court of Appeal’s Opinion eviscerates the CVRA by reading requirements into the statute that do not exist (e.g., proof of a potential majority-minority district) and ignoring portions of the statute that do exist (e.g., protection accorded to a minority’s ability to influence elections), with the effect of sharply limiting its application in our diverse state,” he said.
In his second point, Shenkman says it’s established law for an appeal court to consider the ruling of the trial court and give deference to the weight of live testimony.
“Well-established precedent directs that findings of fact, including a finding of intentional discrimination by a public entity, must be reviewed under the deferential substantial evidence standard. The Court of Appeal applied de novo review to the trial court’s finding that Santa Monica’s at-large system was adopted and maintained with discriminatory intent.”
A de novo review reevaluates the case based on the available evidence without consideration for the trial itself, an action Shenkman says is improper.
“On that basis, the Opinion ignores the expert historian testimony presented at trial and the trial court’s assessment of the evidence based in part on the expert’s live testimony – in effect, second guessing the trial court’s exercise of its function as the finder of fact.”
The City has 20 days to file an answer to the petition.
“The City believes that the Court of Appeal ruling is correct in holding that Santa Monica’s at-large election system has not diluted Latino voting power and so complies with the California Voting Rights Act,” said a written statement provided by City Hall. “The Court of Appeal also correctly rejected plaintiffs’ claim that the City had intentionally discriminated against minority voters in enacting and maintaining its current election system. Santa Monica’s election system, which was adopted and has been twice validated by Santa Monica voters, has repeatedly elected candidates preferred by Latino voters.”