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Oral Arguments Set for June 30 in Santa Monica Voting Rights Case

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By Jorge Casuso

June 15, 2020 -- More than four years after Latino activists filed a lawsuit challenging Santa Monica's election system, an Appeals Court panel will hold its final hearing in the case this month.

A three-judge panel from the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which includes Los Angeles County, is scheduled to hear oral arguments from both parties -- either by phone or video conferencing -- on June 30, according to the Court's calendar.

The case was expedited more than a year ago at the request of the City, which appealed a Superior Court ruling that Santa Monica's at-large election system intentionally discriminates against Latino voters.

The Appeals Court granted the case "calendar preference," assuring a ruling is made by July 10 so a City Council election can be held in November as scheduled ("Appeals Court Grants City's Request to Expedite Voting Rights Case," May 7, 2019).

The Appeals Court will determine if Santa Monica must switch to the district-based election system mandated by the lower Court ("Judge Orders Special District Elections for Council in Final Ruling," February 16, 2019).

The case will be heard by Division Eight of the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which is composed of four judges -- two chosen by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and two by former Gov. Jerry Brown.

The justices must be confirmed by voters after the Governor's choice is approved by the California State Bar's Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation.

It has not been determined which three judges will hear the case, said Kevin Shenkman, who represents the plaintiffs.

All four judges in the division have ties to the Santa Monica area, according to the biographies posted on the California Courts website.

Appeals Court Judge Tricia Bigelow, who was confirmed as the Presiding Justice in February 2010 after being chosen by Schwarzenegger, is a member of the Board of Advisors at Pepperdine University School of Law.

Before being elevated to the appellate court, Bigelow was assigned to the superior court in downtown Los Angeles, where she "presided over general jurisdiction fast track civil trials and long cause criminal trials," according to the website.

The three other justices are Beth Grimes, Maria E. Stratton and John Shepard Wiley Jr.

Grimes, who was chosen by Schwarzenegger and confirmed by voters in April 2010, formerly presided over "independent calendar general jurisdiction courtrooms in the Stanley Mosk Courthouse and the Santa Monica Courthouse."

Before her appointment to the bench, Grimes was a partner in the litigation department of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the outside law firm representing the City in the case.

Plaintiff's attorney Shenkman also worked for the firm.

One of the other justices in the division, Maria E. Stratton, is a Santa Monica native who grew up in San Diego, according to the website.

Stratton served as law clerk to U.S. Circuit Judge Harry Pregerson, who was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

She was appointed to the Los Angeles County Superior Court by Schwarzenegger in 2005 and to the Court of Appeals by Brown in 2018.

Like Stratton, Wiley was also appointed to the Court of appeals by Brown in 2018, after clerking for Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. of the U.S. Supreme Court and for Judge Frank Coffin of the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

Wiley was tenured at UCLA Law School, where he won the school's Distinguished Teaching Award.

Unlike Circuit Court judges, who are appointed by the President to serve life terms, California Appeals Court judges serve 12-year terms.

If part of the term was served before the position became vacant, the justice serves the uncompleted part of the term before being confirmed once again by voters to serve a new term.

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