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Lobbying Efforts Pick Up Steam in Voting Rights Case

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By Jorge Casuso

September 11, 2023 -- Proponents of both fighting and settling the voting rights lawsuit against the City are stepping up their lobbying efforts as the City Council prepares to discuss the issue in closed session Tuesday.

The item was placed on the agenda some three weeks after the California Supreme Court sent the case back to an Appellate Court that had ruled in favor of the City in July 2020 ("Supreme Court Reverses Voting Rights Ruling," August 24, 2023).

The justices wrote that the lower court had "relied on an incorrect legal standard" to conclude that Santa Monica's at-large election system did not violate the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

In a letter Monday, proponents of continuing to fight the lawsuit argued that the Appeals Court should be given the chance to "determine if there has been a violation of the CVRA, and if so, what the appropriate remedy should be."

Any decision to change Santa Monica's voting system, the letter said, "should be made through an open, public process and ratified by the voters, and not through an opaque settlement decided in closed session behind closed doors.

"As we are a charter city, our form of government is for the citizens alone to decide by voting at the ballot box," said the letter signed by 13 civic leaders, including three former Councilmembers and the two runners-up in last November's Council race.

The Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA), a plaintiff in the nearly eight-year-old lawsuit, said the letter "reflects a misunderstanding of the role of trial courts and appellate courts.”

"Trial courts decide factual questions, while appellate courts merely review those factual findings for legal error," the PNA said. "In this case the trial court has already decided the issue" that is the focus of the letter.

The PNA points to a February 2019 Superior Court ruling that found Santa Monica's at-large election system discriminates against Latino voters and ordered the City to adopt district-based elections ("Judge Orders Special District Elections for Council in Final Ruling," February 15, 2019).

Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos wrote that the district map submitted by the plaintiffs and adopted by the court "is an appropriate remedy, will likely be effective, improving Latinos’ ability to elect their preferred candidate or influence the outcome of such an election."

Proponents of fighting the lawsuit said the lower court is expected to "clarify some of the ambiguities of the law" and propose "potential remedies that should or could be considered if a violation is proven."

"While there are differences of opinion among our community on whether Santa Monica is in violation of the CVRA and if so, what the remedy should be, the law and our legal system provide a pathway to make that determination and facilitate a resolution, if one is needed," the letter said.

"Let’s follow the process and let the case be heard by the Court of Appeals."

In a letter to the City Council, the PNA called last month's Supreme Court ruling "a watershed moment" and urged the Council to settle the case.

"City officials cannot credibly claim to be championing racial justice while denying fair elections to Latino voters and threatening the voting rights of all people of color throughout California, and spending millions of dollars on attorneys to do so," the PNA wrote.

"It's time for you to end the City's expensive and divisive fight against the voting rights of Latinos in Santa Monica, and minorities throughout California," the letter to the Council concluded.

"Drop the appeal, stop wasting millions of our tax dollars and unite the Council and the City in the process."

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