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Perhaps taking inspiration from the habit of movie studios to break up the final chapter of blockbuster movie franchises into multiple parts, the latest chapter in the years long legal saga over how Santa Monica elects city leaders has ended with “to be continued…”  

The California Supreme Court reversed a ruling by lower courts on Thursday that had favored the City but the Justices specifically said they were not picking a winner in the case. Rather, the case should be reheard and re-evaluated under different criteria. 

The case, Pico Neighborhood Association et al. v. City of Santa Monica, centers on the contention that the city’s at-large voting system disproportionately discriminates against Latino voters and violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). The plaintiffs, the Pico Neighborhood Association and Maria Loya, argue that district-based voting should be implemented to rectify the alleged bias.

The case began in 2016 but the first ruling wasn’t issued until 2018 when the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled against the City’s at-large voting approach, favoring the plaintiffs. However, an appeals court overturned this decision in 2020, prompting the plaintiffs to escalate the case to the California Supreme Court.

The appeal centered on the concept of “voter dilution,” and if the current voting system prevents protected classes, such as racial minorities, from influencing elections due to their smaller representation in the overall population. 

The plaintiffs had argued such dilution was happening and that dividing the city into districts would concentrate the Latino population in a Pico neighborhood district, potentially increasing Latino representation from the average citywide 14% to about 30%.

The City argued that the current at-large system is not inherently discriminatory and that the plaintiffs have failed to prove racially polarized voting. They argued for a new but unspecified standard that would determine how large a minority population needed to be in a district to justify a switch in voting systems. 

The court did weigh-in on those arguments, rejecting the City’s arguments about the “near majority” requirement on several fronts. 

“A protected class has the ability to elect its preferred candidate if it would have the potential to elect that candidate, on its own or with the assistance of crossover support from other voters, under an alternative voting system; there is no additional requirement that the protected class constitute a majority or near-majority of a hypothetical district,” it said. 

However, the ruling specifically states the decision to overturn the lower court does not mean the City’s system is invalid nor did it endorse district-based voting. 

Rather, it said the lower court failed to evaluate the dilution claim appropriately. It said a court presented with a dilution claim should undertake a searching evaluation of the totality of the facts and circumstances, including the characteristics of the specific locality, its electoral history, and “ ‘an intensely local appraisal of the design and impact’ of the contested electoral mechanisms” as well as the design and impact of the potential alternative electoral system. 

Because the Court of Appeal did not evaluate the dilution element of the CVRA under that standard, the Justices reversed the judgment and remanded the matter to the Court of Appeal for it to reconsider.

In addition to rehearing the dilution claim, the Supreme Court said the lower court should also consider other elements of the CVRA in its analysis. 

“We express no view on the ultimate question of whether the City’s at-large voting system is consistent with the CVRA,” said the ruling. “The parties vigorously contested in the Court of Appeal whether plaintiffs had established two elements of a CVRA claim: whether voting in city council elections was racially polarized and whether the at-large method of election diluted the voting power of Latino residents in those elections. Because the Court of Appeal concluded that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate dilution of the Latino vote, it did not consider whether voting in council elections was racially polarized. We have determined that the Court of Appeal relied on an incorrect legal standard to conclude that plaintiffs had failed to satisfy the dilution element of their CVRA claim.”

The Supreme Court said the Court of Appeal should decide the dilution argument under the correct legal standard but also whether plaintiffs have demonstrated the existence of racially polarized voting and any of the other unresolved issues in the City’s appeal.

The ruling said that any decision to move to an alternate voting system, that could include districts, would need to show the new system actually increased voting power and that any decision about district borders would be the result of a larger process. 

“To replace at-large with district elections under a dilution theory, a successful plaintiff must show not merely that the protected class would have a real electoral opportunity in one or more hypothetical districts, but also that the incremental gain in the class’s ability to elect its candidate of choice in such districts would not be offset by a loss of the class’s potential to elect its candidates of choice elsewhere in the locality,” said the ruling. 

It said if the Court did rule in favor of the plaintiffs, it did not have to adopt their proposed district map. 

“If the court selects a district remedy, then there must also be at least two public hearings before the maps are drafted and at least two more hearings once the maps have been drawn and published,” it said.

The plaintiff in the case, María Loya declared the ruling a victory. 

“Today the CA Supreme Court vindicated our position to protect minority voting rights throughout the State of CA.  Sadly, former SM Council members and our current Mayor Gleam Davis voted continuously to waste taxpayer’s dollars on expensive lawyers to protect their power & privilege,“ she said. 

In a letter send to SMDP prior to the ruling, Councilman Oscar de la Torre (who is the husband of Loya and a former president of the PNA) said the at-large system was an example of systemic racism and that opposition to district voting was about preserving the power of the city’s current leadership. 

“The CVRA has been instrumental in combating that inequity, yet some of my otherwise progressive colleagues would seek to cripple the CVRA in court so they might maintain their own political power and privilege.   My colleagues on the Santa Monica City Council cannot fight against voting rights and simultaneously call themselves “progressive,” he wrote.  

In a statement, the City said it was evaluating the ruling. 

“We are reviewing the opinion published by the California Supreme Court today, August 24, in the California Voting Rights Act case Pico Neighborhood Association v. City of Santa Monica. The ruling returns the case back to the Court of Appeal for further consideration,” said Communications and Public Information Manager Lauren G. Howland. “We are assessing the implications of this ruling and will share additional updates as available and appropriate.

No date or timeline was provided in the Thursday ruling for the rehearing at the lower court level.