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Plaintiffs File Opening Brief in Voting Rights Case

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By Jorge Casuso

December 22, 2020 -- The plaintiffs in the voting rights lawsuit against the City filed their opening brief with the State Supreme Court on Monday urging it to adopt voting districts without "further delay."

The Latino plaintiffs asked the court to review a July decision by the 2nd District Court of Appeal that found the City's at-large election system does not discriminate against Latino voters ("Supreme Court Takes Up Voting Rights Lawsuit," October 21, 2020).

The 70-page brief asks the Court to affirm the trial court’s judgment the appeals court overturned and "allow the ordered changes to Santa Monica’s at-large election system to proceed.

"The trial court’s remedial order has been stayed for nearly two years," wrote Kevin Shenkman, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

"Further delay is unnecessary and unwarranted," he wrote. "Santa Monica’s Latino community has already waited far too long for their voting rights."

In its review, the seven-member court will focus on what a plaintiff must prove in order to establish vote dilution under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

Shenkman argues that plaintiffs "do not need to prove the minority is concentrated enough to be the majority in a single member district.

"Nor do they need to prove that minority voters would be able to elect a candidate of their choice under an alternative election system," Shenkman wrote.

"It is sufficient to show an alternative election system would enable them to 'influence the outcome of an election' in a way they were not previously afforded."

According to the brief, the evidence presented in the lower court hearing revealed “a consistent pattern of racially polarized voting,” noting that the court ordered the City to switch to a district-based system.

"The trial court found that district elections, including a remedial district centered on the Pico Neighborhood, would be an effective remedy, 'improving Latinos’ ability to elect their preferred candidate or influence the outcome of such an election."

The brief also warns that upholding the appellate Court decision could have sweeping implications for minority representation across California.

"In the eighteen years since the CVRA was passed, hundreds of California jurisdictions -- cities, school districts, water districts -- have switched from discriminatory at-large election systems to fairer systems, largely district-based election systems, that afford minority voters a true voice in who represents them," Shenkman wrote.

"The Court of Appeal’s decision threatened to eviscerate that progress, wiping out the distinct choices made by the Legislature to craft a voting rights law that recognized California’s unique demographic and geographic realities.

"This case presents the Court with its first and best opportunity to make crystal clear what the CVRA stands for and requires," the brief concludes.

The City's responsive brief is due January 20, Shenkman said. The plaintiffs then have a chance to respond before the court hears the case.

The Court will then accept amincus briefs from both parties. Amicus letters on behalf of the plaintiffs were filed by some of the nation and state's leading progressive organizations and backers of the CVRA.

The letters warn that a victory for the City could roll back the gains made under the 2002 law ("Voting Rights Lawsuit Pits Progressive Leaders Against Santa Monica," September 23, 2020).

The City contends it "has never challenged the constitutionality of the CVRA as a facial matter or as it applies in other jurisdictions," officials said in a statement issued earlier this month.

"Rather, the City has argued that the plaintiffs’ CVRA claim lacks merit because the evidence shows that Santa Monica’s at-large election system has consistently resulted in the election of candidates preferred by Latino voters."

City officials note that two Latinos and a Black City Council member, all of them from the Pico Neighborhood, were elected on November 3 under the City's at-large election system.

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