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Final Showdown Tuesday In Voting Rights Case

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By Jorge Casuso

June 23, 2023 -- The final showdown in a seven-year voting rights lawsuit against the City that could alter the future of both state and local politics will take place Tuesday.

At a session beginning at 10 a.m., the California Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case that claims Santa Monica's at-large elections for City Council violate the rights of Latino voters. (For schedule click here)

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The oral arguments come two years after an Appellate Court ruling that found the plaintiffs' failed to prove the City's 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).

If the Latino plaintiffs ultimately prevail, the City would need to implement District elections mandated by a Superior Court judge in 2019 ("Judge Orders Special District Elections for Council in Final Ruling," February 15, 2019).

A vitory by the City, State progressive leaders warn, could roll back the gains made under the 2002 voting rights law that enhanced the power of minority voters through District elections ("Voting Rights Lawsuit Pits Progressive Leaders Against Santa Monica," September 23, 2020).

In addition to the widespread political impacts are the potential financial stakes in the highly expensive case.

The lead attorney arguing the case for the City is Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, a powerful international firm whose lawyers working the case charge an estimated $1,000 to more than $1,500 an hour.

Representing the plaintiffs is Kevin Shenkman of Shenkman & Hughes PC, a 12-year-old boutique firm in Malibu that has filed similar lawsuits against dozens of California cities.

While, one by one, all of them folded either willingly or nudged by a judge, Santa Monica has fought the case all the way to the State's highest court ("City of Santa Monica the 'One Hold Out' in Voting Rights Litigation, Lawyer Says," May 18, 2017).

In June 2019, shortly after Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos ruled in the plaintiffs' favor, Shenkman filed documents seeking $22.3 million in attorneys fees and expenses ("Voting Rights Attorneys Seek More Than $22 Million in Legal Costs," June 4, 2019).

A victory for Shenkman in the case would deal a major financial blow to the City, which recently agreed to pay $122.5 million to settle the remaining lawsuits in a sexual abuse case ("Council Votes to Settle Remaining Sexual Abuse Cases for $122.5 Million," April 25, 2023).

The Supreme Court's decision is expected to focus on the Appellate Court ruling that found the plaintiffs failed to prove Santa Monica's at-large election system "diluted" the voting power of Latinos.

Carving out a District with 30 percent Latino voters, as mandated by Superior Court Judge Palazuelos, would make little difference, the court said.

In his reply brief, Shenkman strongly disagreed with the ruling, arguing the decision "completely ignores the section of the California Voting Rights Act that says you don't have to have a majority minority district."

Tuesday's oral argument session will be conducted with all justices and counsel participating remotely.

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