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Secretary of State, Original Backers of Voting Rights Law Support Plaintiffs' Appeal in Santa Monica Case

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By Jorge Casuso

September 9, 2020 -- The California Secretary of State and the original backers of the state's voting rights law have filed letters on behalf of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the City.

In an amicus letter sent last week, the former legislators asked the California Supreme Court to overturn an Appeals Court decision July 9 upholding Santa Monica's at-large election system.

The letter -- signed by retired Senator Richard Polanco, principal author of the 2002 California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), and 18 former legislators who backed the measure -- calls the decision "dangerous" and says it threatens the strides made under the state law.

"If that decision is allowed to stand, it would eviscerate the CVRA, and with it the voting rights of millions of Californians," the former legislators wrote.

"That decision would also fundamentally alter anti-discrimination law to prevent all but the most obvious and egregious racial discrimination from being redressed by the courts."

On Tuesday, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla also wrote an amicus letter questioning the appellate court's finding that Santa Monica's Latino voters are not concentrated enough to create a District with the majority needed for a Latino candidate to win.

The opinion, Padilla wrote, "sidesteps the unambiguous language" in the elections code and "threatens to upend the express statutory requirements for establishing liability."

The amicus letters were filed after the Appeals Court overturned a trial court decision that found Santa Monica's at-large election system violates the the CVRA by discriminating against Latino voters and ordered the City to hold district elections.

On August 18, the plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to review the appellate court's decision.

In its amicus letter, the Coalition of 2001-2002 California Legislators, states that "the Court of Appeal’s interpretation of the CVRA is clearly wrong" and "should be corrected."

The three-judge appeals panel found that Latinos, who make up 14 percent of the local electorate, lack the numbers to win in the 30 percent Latino District ordered by a a Superior Court judge in February 2019.

Under the Court's opinion, the former legislators wrote, "cities would be free to discriminate against voters on the basis of race as long as the victimized racial group is not sufficiently large and compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district."

The Coalition -- which includes five members of the Elections and Judiciary committees that reviewed the CVRA -- backed the arguments made by the Latino plaintiffs in the Santa Monica case.

The former legislators cited the "clear language of the CVRA, its legislative history, and the opinions of other courts" in urging the Supreme Court to overturn the Appeals Court decision.

"That the CVRA does not require a plaintiff to show a potential majority-minority district is so clear from the statutory text and legislative history, every appellate court that has addressed the CVRA has understood this," the former legislators wrote.

The Appeals Court, they said, "ruled that the CVRA protects minority voting rights only if the minority group is geographically concentrated enough to comprise the majority of an election district.

"This theory is fundamentally at odds with our intent in adopting the CVRA," the Coalition, which includes three current members of Congress, wrote.

The letter warns that if the Appeals Court opinion is not reversed, it "will undermine the voting rights of millions of Californians to be free from racially discriminatory at-large elections, simply based on where they reside."

On August 18, the plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to review the decision. The City has filed its opposing brief, and the court will now decide whether to accept the case.

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