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Voting Rights Lawsuit Pits Progressive Leaders Against Santa Monica

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By Jorge Casuso

September 23, 2020 -- A voting rights lawsuit against Santa Monica is pitting some of the nation and state's leading progressive organizations against a City that prides itself on its liberal policies.

The groups -- which include the nation's two largest Latino organizations, three minority caucuses in the State legislature and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference -- have filed amicus letters on behalf of the Latino plaintiffs in the California Voting Rights (CVRA) lawsuit.

The letters urge the State Supreme Court to overturn an Appeals Court ruling in July that found the City's at-large election system does not discriminate against Latino voters ("Santa Monica's Election System Does Not Violate Latino's Voting Rights, Appeals Court Rules," July 9, 2020).

That decision, they warn, could roll back the gains made under the 2002 voting rights law, which has paved the way for district elections that enhance the power of minority voters across the state.

"Not only is the Opinion wrong," reads a letter from the Latino, Black and Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucuses, "it is horribly damaging to the voting rights of millions of Californians, and the prospects for the next generation of minority leaders."

That sentiment was echoed by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation's largest and oldest Hispanic membership organization.

"This Court should review and reverse the Court of Appeal's evisceration of the CVRA," LULAC wrote. "The voting rights of millions of Californians, and the political empowerment of minority communities throughout California depend on this Court to do so."

Kevin Shenkman, who represents the plaintiffs in the case, said the letters clearly show "which side the Councilmembers are on" and that "the progressiveness they believe in is only a tool."

Council members, Shenkman said, "fancy themselves as progressives, but in reality they are all too willing to abandon progressive ideals in order to maintain their power at the expense of the voting rights of all Californians."

City officials did not respond by deadline to a request for comment.

Eleven amicus letters have been filed on behalf of the plaintiffs, including letters from Secretary of State Alex Padilla and the author and original backers of the CVRA ("Secretary of State, Original Backers of Voting Rights Law Support Plaintiffs' Appeal in Santa Monica Case," September 9, 2020).

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 law 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.

The amicus letters challenge the Appeal Court's ruling that Latinos, who make up 14 percent of the local electorate, lack the numbers to win in the 30 percent Latino District ordered by the lower court.

The letters echo the plaintiffs' contention that the court's ruling "completely ignores the section (of the CVRA) that says you don't need to have a majority minority district."

"Majority-minority districts are not necessary for minorities to achieve representation; that can be accomplished with influence districts," wrote the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California.

The group, which was formed in 1964 by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues in Los Angeles, urges California's highest court to overturn the decision.

"As a result of the California Legislature’s wisdom, for 18 years the CVRA has opened doors for minority communities throughout California," the Conference wrote.

"The Court of Appeal’s Opinion unjustifiably closes them, and must be reversed."

LULAC made the same case. "In enacting the CVRA, the Legislature understood that in California a majority-minority district is not necessary to empower minority voters to have a meaningful voice in their local elections.

"Influence districts, under certain circumstances, are effective at allowing minority voters to even elect their preferred candidates," the group said.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) -- a nationwide legal-aid resource and activist organization established in 1968 -- agreed.

"The Court of Appeal should have interpreted 'influence' district as part of its analysis of the legislative construction of the CVRA," MALDEF wrote in its amicus letter.

"In doing so, it should have readily concluded that, wherever the specific threshold may lie, 30 percent certainly qualifies as an 'influence' district."

Three of the minority caucuses in the California Legislature said influence districts helped elect many of their 49 members.

"Our collective experience, as Latino, Black and Asian Pacific Islander elected officials in California demonstrates that the Opinion is wrong," they wrote.

"Nearly half of us were elected to the Legislature by districts where the corresponding minority community accounts for between 20 percent and 49 percent of the district’s eligible voters.

"Still, it is, in part, because of the strong support we receive from our respective minority communities that we have prevailed in elections," the legislators wrote.

"That diversity and integration should be celebrated, not exploited for the purpose of denying minorities representation in their local governments."

The California Latino School Boards Association and the California Association of Black School Educators urged the Supreme Court to prevent school districts across the State "from regressing back to dilutive at-large elections."

Some school districts that "were in the process of converting to trustee-area elections have, emboldened by the Court of Appeal's decision, slammed on the brakes," the groups wrote.

"The Court of Appeal's decision has already begun to cause significant turmoil and uncertainty among California's school districts," they wrote. "Without review by this Court, that turmoil and uncertainty will continue to grow."

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