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Plaintiffs File Response in Voting Rights Appeal

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By Jorge Casuso

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the date the plaintiff's' brief was submitted. It was filed December 27.

January 6, 2020 -- Emphasizing that only one Latino candidate has ever been elected to serve on the City Council, plaintiffs in a voting rights lawsuit urged an appeals court last month to uphold a ruling that Santa Monica's election system should be replaced.

The responding brief filed by the plaintiffs on December 27 argues that the California Appeals Court should not reweigh the evidence that led to a Superior Court ruling that the City's at-large election system discriminates against Latinos.

In an 82-page brief, lead attorney Kevin Shenkman noted that the lower court based its decision on "5064 pages of live trial testimony and 428 trial exhibits, as well as voluminous briefing from the parties."

"The trial court," Shenkman wrote, "found that Santa Monica’s system was intended, from its inception, to limit racial minorities’ electoral power, and for 72 years has largely achieved that illegitimate purpose."

The plaintiffs argue that the court should not "revisit the voluminous evidence of discriminatory intent simply because Appellant contends that different inferences could be drawn from some of that evidence."

"The Superior Court was in the best position to judge that evidence," Shenkman wrote. "Those factual determinations are within the province of the trial court, and are not properly second-guessed on appeal."

The plaintiffs note that since the City implemented its current election system in 1947, only one Latino, Tony Vazquez, has been elected to the Council "even though Latino voters overwhelmingly support Latino candidates."

The lack of representation has rendered Latino voters, who are concentrated in the Pico Neighborhood, "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.

The plaintiffs also note that since 1994, the Latino candidate who has been the top choice of Latinos voters has lost, with the exception of Vazquez in 2012.

In that election, Vazquez, who had lost his seat in 1994, "was heavily favored by Latino voters but did not receive nearly as much support from non-Hispanic white voters."

"The evidence showed that meaningful Latino candidates are overwhelmingly preferred by Latino voters, yet Latino candidates almost always lose," Shenkman wrote.

He argues that in its opening brief filed in October, the City uses an "obfuscating approach" that omits evidence and "repeatedly mischaracterizes and misquotes" the lower court decision.

The plaintiffs also argue that the lower court "correctly implemented a remedy" in the form of district elections" when the City "failed to propose any remedy at all" ("City Says No Remedy Needed in Voting Rights Case," December 3, 2018).

The City's opening brief filed on on October 18 argues that upholding the trial court's decision would dilute, instead of enhance, Latino voting strength ("City Files Opening Brief in Voting Rights Appeal," October 18, 2019).

City officials contend that in her ruling, Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos applied "legally incorrect standards in determining the existence of racially polarized voting."

They also argue that Palazuelos "misapplied the legal standard for determining whether Latino votes have been diluted" and depended on "the impermissible stereotype that Latino voters prefer only Latino-surnamed candidates."

After the City files a response to the plaintiffs' brief, each side will have 30 minutes to present oral arguments in the case.

Under an expedited schedule requested by the City, the Appeals Court will make its final ruling by July 10, 2020 ("Appeals Court Grants City's Request to Expedite Voting Rights Case," May 7, 2019).

That gives the City time to prepare for the scheduled November 2020 Council election, officials said.

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