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Appeals Court Bounces Voting Rights Case Back to Trial Court


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By Jorge Casuso

February 9, 2024 -- A California Appeals Court on Friday remanded the voting rights case against the City of Santa Monica to the lower court that ruled in favor of the Latino plaintiffs.

The latest action comes six months after the California Supreme Court sent the eight-year old case back to the Appellate Court saying it "relied on an incorrect legal standard" in its ruling in favor of the City ("Supreme Court Reverses Voting Rights Ruling," August 24, 2023)..

Friday's surprise action -- which comes less than two days after briefs were filed by both parties -- puts the case before the trial court that ruled in 2019 that the City's at-large election system discriminated against Latino voters.

The Superior Court judge, the three-judge panel wrote on Friday, "found the City of Santa Monica had created an election system that violated constitutional equal protection as well as the California Voting Rights Act."

In her final ruling in February 2019, Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos ordered a special district-based election for all seven council seats.

Palazuelos wrote that candidates not elected through district-based elections "are prohibited from serving" on the Council ("Judge Orders Special District Elections for Council in Final Ruling," February 15, 2019).

The City appealed the ruling to a State Appeals Court, which ruled in July 2020 that Santa Monica's at-large election system does not violate the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), overturning the lower court's decision ("Santa Monica's Election System Does Not Violate Latino's Voting Rights, Appeals Court Rules," July 9, 2020).

"The City did not violate the California Voting Rights Act or the California Constitution," Justice John Shepard Wiley Jr. wrote in the unanimous decision. "We do not reach the remedies issue because there was no wrong to remedy."

The plaintiffs appealed the ruling to the California Supreme Court, which remanded the case to back to the Appeals Court last August.

The judges wrote, " We express no view on the ultimate question of whether the City’s at-large voting system is consistent with the CVRA."

The ruling directed the Appellate Court to decide "whether, under the correct legal standard, plaintiffs have established that at-large elections dilute their ability to elect their preferred candidate."

On Friday, the Appeals Court wrote, "This case is remanded to the Los Angeles Superior Court for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court's guidance."

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