Lawyer: City still at risk for Voting Rights Act lawsuit

City of Santa Clarita City Hall

As the Santa Clarita City Council gets ready Tuesday night to appoint a fifth member to fill a vacancy, the attorney in a 2013 California Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the city says the city could face similar litigation in the future.

In a “Talk of Santa Clarita” podcast with Stephen Daniels, posted on Monday and available here, Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman said that while the previous lawsuit against the city was settled, “It’s not to say that there’s not the potential to file another case.’’

Shenkman – co-counsel for the plaintiffs in a suit that alleged Santa Clarita’s at-large voting system, rather than a district system, denied Latino voters a fair voice – was speaking hypothetically in the interview with Daniels, and did not say that any such new case is in the works.

But when pressed on the matter, he did say the possibility of another suit exists.

“There’s literally tens of thousands, if not a hundred thousand, people, in Santa Clarita, all with standing to sue the city of Santa Clarita under the California Voting Rights Act, to force them to abandon this unlawful (at-large) election system,’’ Shenkman said.

Asked if the city choosing to appoint a new member, rather than call a special election, adds to the possibility of a new CVRA-related lawsuit, Shenkman replied, “Yeah, I think it very much depends on who they appoint.’’

“Right now, as the Council stands, there are four white, conservative Republicans of a similar mind,’’ he said.

“And that is not what the City of Santa Clarita is. I would love to see the City Council have the kind of maturity to appoint someone who does not share all of their views …. Maybe the fifth person should bring some diversity of ideas. … I have no illusions that they’re actually going to do that, but that is certainly something I suppose could protect them at least in some respect from a CVRA case.’’

He added, “It wouldn’t be complete protection for them. But if I were advising someone how to make their defense of a CVRA case a little bit better, that’s what they ought to do.’’

The 2013 lawsuit was settled in 2016 by the city, with one aspect of the settlement being the city would move Council elections from April to the November general election, a time when a bigger turnout was expected, while keeping its at-large system intact.

In December, Shenkman told The Signal, “I think the city is very much open to a suit pursuant to the California Voting Rights Act. Their (at-large) system still violates the CVRA. It’s still at-large and it’s still racially polarized voting. I don’t think the mere change of the election date has or will be effective in eliminating the racially polarized voting.’’

In the “Talk of Santa Clarita” podcast posted Monday, Shenkman said, “I think the matter is still very much in doubt. Maybe I’m jumping ahead here, but I am quite confident that the Santa Clarita City Council will be elected through district-based elections. I’m not quite sure when it will happen or how it will happen, but I am quite confident that it will happen.’’

Asked by Daniels if it was just a matter of time before Santa Clarita faces another lawsuit, Shenkman said, “We’ll get ’em (to move away from at-large voting). Not necessarily through a lawsuit, but we’ll get ’em.’’

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