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Impact of Supreme Court Ruling on Local Voting Rights Case Debatable

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By Jorge Casuso

June 8, 2023 -- A surprise U.S. Supreme Court decision Thursday striking down Alabama's congressional map is a major victory for minority voters, but its impact on the voting rights lawsuit against Santa Monica is debatable.

The 5-4 decision affirms a lower court ruling that struck down a map drawn by the state's Republican-led Senate that voting rights activists say discriminates against Black voters.

The map carved out one majority Black district and spread other black voters into districts dominated by Whites, diluting the Black vote.

The Santa Monica voting rights lawsuit before the California Supreme Court seeks to replace at-large City Council elections with District elections and carve a District where Latino voters would be most concentrated.

The plaintiff's lead attorney, Kevin Shenkman, believes Thursday's ruling by the nation's highest court could have an impact on the local case.

"Certainly some of the arguments the City is making are the same or very similar to the ones that State of Alabama was making and were rejeted by the Supreme Court," Shenkman said.

Both Alabama and Santa Monica, he said, "are arguing that the (respective) voting rights laws should be interpreted very narrowly and require plaintiffs to show all sorts of things that are not required by the voting rights statutes.

"They want to weaken the respective voting rights laws to the point where they are meaningless."

Shenkman said it is heartening that two of the conservative justices on the Supreme Court -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh -- joined the three liberal justices in the ruling.

"I think it bodes well for (the Santa Monica plaintiffs) that two judges deemed conservative were not willing to buy into the arguments Thomas and Alito found compelling," he said, referring to dissenting Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Former Mayor Sue Himmelrich, who as a Councilmember voted to fight the California Voting Rights case against the City, sees no similarities between the Santa Monica and Alabama cases.

Unlike Alabama, "the City never said the CVRA was unconstitutional," Himmelrich said.

In the federal case, Alabama rejected maps that created two Black majority districts, although the numbers were there to do so, Himmelrich said. "Not only did they not do it, but they tried to create rules where you can't do it," she said.

Himmelrich noted that in the local voting rights case, the California Supreme Court -- which will hear oral arguments on June 27 -- will focus on a much narrower issue.

Under review is an Appellate Court ruling that found the plaintiffs failed to prove Santa Monica's at-large election system "diluted" the voting power of Latinos ("Santa Monica's Election System Does Not Violate Latino's Voting Rights, Appeals Court Rules," July 9, 2020).

The Court found that carving out a District with 30 percent Latino voters, as mandated by a Superior Court judge, would make little difference ("Judge Orders Special District Elections for Council in Final Ruling," February 15, 2019).

City officials believe the Supreme Court will agree with the Appeals Court "that plaintiffs failed to establish vote dilution and, as a result, failed to prove" that Santa Monica's election system violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

Shenkman believes the Court will overturn the Appellate Court's decision that "completely ignores the section (of the CVRA) that says you don't have to have a majority minority district."

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