The California Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to review the decision of the Court of Appeal on the voting rights lawsuit that ruled in favor of the City’s at-large election system.
The Supreme Court’s review will be limited to determining what a plaintiff must prove in order to establish vote dilution under the CVRA, and since the Supreme Court has depublished the Court of Appeal’s decision, the ruling cannot be used as a precedent for future California Voting Rights Act cases. The appeal ruling stands until the Supreme Court issues a decision and there will be no change to November’s election process.
The City lost the initial lawsuit brought by the Pico Neighborhood Association and Maria Loya, who alleged that the City’s at-large voting system discriminates against Latino voters and sought a move to district voting. In July, a three judge appeal panel ruled in favor of the City so the plaintiffs filed a petition in August for Supreme Court review.
The CVRA requires plaintiffs prove that the ability of a protected class to impact voting outcomes is impaired due to the dilution of the voter’s rights. As there is no legislative definition for dilution, the Court of Appeals ruled that a dilution argument requires the increase in voter power through district elections to impact election results.
The proposed district map for Santa Monica would increase the voting share of Latinos to 30 percent in the Pico neighborhood compared to 14 percent citywide. This means that district voting would not create a Latino majority and therefore the appeal court ruled in favor of the City’s current at-large voting system.
“The Court of Appeals created a new precedent that affected the original intent of the CVRA by requiring a majority minority district,” said plaintiff Maria Loya. “I feel that the system is rigged and has marginalized people of color living in Santa Monica, in particular the Pico neighborhood and the Latino community. I think the Supreme Court case could restore the intent of the CVRA and could expand fair elections throughout the state.”
The Supreme Court’s review will focus solely on defining the benchmark for establishing vote dilution under the CVRA and let stand the Court of Appeal’s ruling that plaintiffs failed to prove discrimination in violation of the equal protection clause.
“We remain of the view that the Supreme Court ultimately will agree with the Court of Appeal that plaintiffs failed to establish vote dilution and, as a result, failed to prove that the City’s at-large election system violates the California Voting Rights Act. The evidence at trial demonstrated that the City’s at-large elections do not diminish the voting power of Latino voters, who have repeatedly elected their preferred candidates,” said a City spokesperson.
“We are pleased that the California Supreme Court left intact the Court of Appeal’s rejection of plaintiff’s equal protection claim,” said Theodore Boutrous, outside counsel representing the City. “We look forward to demonstrating why the lower court was also right to reject plaintiffs’ misguided view of vote dilution, which would harm minority voters in Santa Monica.”
This California Supreme Court case marks the continuance of an expensive five year long lawsuit. The plaintiff’s have spent $22 million in attorney fees so far, according to the City. City Hall has not disclosed its own legal fees.
“The current City Council continues to waste taxpayer dollars in an ego driven legal adventure to protect their power and privilege and the legacy of systemic racism in our election system,” said Oscar de la Torre, Chair of the Pico Neighborhood Association. “This gross mismanagement of public dollars has contributed to massive layoffs and program and service cuts that negatively impact our residents.”
The City supports its decision to fight for at-large elections, and argues that the ability to vote for all seven council members instead of one better serves the residents of Santa Monica.