Editor’s note: Corrects the interpretation of the State Supreme Court’s ruling to indicate the justices called on the appellate court to broaden the application of tests it must use in order to determine whether an electoral system dilutes the votes of a protected class.
It was a case that some said threatened to erode California’s voting rights law. But after a ruling by the state’s Supreme Court on Thursday, some of its protections are reaffirmed, for now.
The case, filed by the Pico Neighborhood Association and others in 2016, alleged that Santa Monica’s at-large voting system for city council violates the California Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of the Latino community, which at the time made up 14% of its voting-age population. Instead of council members being elected citywide, the plaintiffs want the city divided into districts, and voters in each one to pick their representative.
In February 2019, a trial court ruled in the association’s favor and ordered the city to switch to district-based voting. But in July 2020, a state appeals court reversed that decision.
On Thursday, California’s high court unanimously ruled that was a mistake — that the appeals court had “misconstrued” the California Voting Rights Act. Justice Kelli Evans, writing for the six other justices, said “a plaintiff who has established the existence of racially polarized voting in an at-large system need not prove that the protected class would constitute a majority — or, as the City proposes, a near majority …” according to the ruling.
“A court presented with a dilution claim should undertake a searching evaluation of the totality of the facts and circumstances … including the characteristics of the specific locality, its electoral history, and ‘an intensely local appraisal of the design and impact’ of the contested electoral mechanisms’ as well as the design and impact of the potential alternative electoral system,” Evans continued.
A Santa Clarita official said Tuesday the ruling would require the city to do a pretty intense analysis of all the potential scenarios in order to not be at risk for being sued.
Attorney Kevin Shenkman, who represents the Pico Neighborhood Association, also sued the city of Santa Clarita over a California Voting Rights Act allegation in 2014. In a phone interview Monday, he said the neighborhood association’s current case is a bit stronger than both the suit he represented against the city of Santa Clarita, as well as the one that was most recently settled against Santa Clarita, for a couple of different reasons.
Namely, Shenkman said, the evidence of racially polarized voting was stronger in Santa Monica, and part of that also had to do with the fact that the political organization of the Latino community is a little stronger there. He added that, in Santa Monica, at-large elections were implemented historically with a specific intent to deprive minority voters a say in elections.
In the previous CVRA case, the city of Santa Clarita settled with Shenkman without acknowledging a violation of the law, moved its elections from April to November, to line up with the general election, and paid approximately $1 million to both sides for legal fees, including about $600,000 to Shenkman.
The most recent Santa Clarita case was settled with the city announcing a move to districts starting with the 2024 election. The legal fees for the city in the second case were expected to be similar for the settlement.
Of note for the city of Santa Clarita, particularly the opponents of the settlement who want the city to fight the move to districts, is the fact that there’s a sunset clause on the city’s move.
Under the terms of the CVRA lawsuit settlement announced last year, city officials are able to once again look at the electoral system after the 2030 election.
Scott Rafferty, who represented two plaintiffs in the most recent CVRA lawsuit against Santa Clarita that was settled last year, said he felt Santa Clarita was actually the stronger of the two cases, saying the cluster of City Council members living within a couple miles of each other was obvious evidence that representation was not citywide.
“That’s what it’s all about is the fact that so much of the city here geographically was unrepresented on a City Council for many, many years,” Rafferty said. “I think the symptoms were much more serious in Santa Clarita because there was no prospect for changing the status quo without going to districts.”
Santa Clarita Mayor Jason Gibbs, who, like all of his colleagues on the dais, acknowledged that the CVRA settlement talks were conducted begrudgingly to save taxpayer money and not because council members believed there was a violation, said Monday he still felt that at-large districts provided the best opportunity for the city’s residents to choose their representation.
The recent State Supreme Court decision didn’t really clear up the issues for him, he said, adding the decision also asks for cities to do significantly more analysis to be proactive about preventing any potential problems.
“It definitely didn’t clean anything up in my mind to be honest with you,” Gibbs said, “but I don’t think for Santa Clarita, it will do much more at this point. We’ll just have to see going forward into (2030) what the makeup is of the voters.”
He added that he still felt the city made the right decision to settle even if it was a difficult one.
While U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California, supported the association in the Santa Monica case, the League of California Cities and the Special Districts Association filed briefs backing the city. So did a coalition including the League of Women Voters of Santa Monica and the Alliance of Santa Monica Latino and Black Voters, arguing that the city has “achieved significant success in ensuring voting power for Latino and Black voters” under the at-large system.
The case now goes back to the appeals court for further consideration. The city of Santa Monica said it was “reviewing the Supreme Court’s opinion and working to assess the path forward.” The association urged city officials to “settle the case quickly” and not spend taxpayer money on more litigation that “would be much better spent addressing the city’s many public safety and community services needs.”
Under the 2001 state Voting Rights Act, minority groups gained greater leverage to challenge at-large elections that they contend dilute their voting power. At least 185 cities and nearly 400 other California jurisdictions have switched to district-based elections, according to the League of California Cities.
“There are some places that we’re waiting to see what the California Supreme Court would do and what they would say in this Santa Monica case, and so now they will have those answers,” said a statement released by Shenkman, who represented the association and has filed dozens of lawsuits against cities regarding at-large elections.
Shenkman said the Pico neighborhood case now goes back to the Court of Appeals, which is being asked to reevaluate whether the protected class of Latino voters was disenfranchised based not only on the basis of the population numbers, but all of the factors presented by the association when the case was argued in trial court.
He also said Monday the legal fees for each side by the end of the Santa Monica case were expected to be in the tens of millions of dollars — which was a repeated argument cited by the city of Santa Clarita as justification for its settlement. To date, no lawsuit alleging a CVRA violation has been successfully defended, which was a fact mentioned by Santa Clarita’s attorneys during CVRA settlement talks.