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Plaintiffs in Voting Rights Suit Request Supreme Court Hearing

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By Jorge Casuso

August 19, 2020 -- The Latino plaintiffs in the voting rights lawsuit against Santa Monica asked the California Supreme Court on Tuesday to review an Appeals Court decision last month in favor of the City.

The request comes after the 2nd District Court of Appeal on July 9 overturned a trial court decision that found Santa Monica's at-large election system violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) by discriminating against Latino voters and ordered the City to hold district elections.

The three-judge appeals panel found that Latinos, who make up 14 percent of the local electorate, lack the numbers to win in the 30 percent Latino District ordered by a a Superior Court judge in February 2019.

The petition filed by the plaintiffs' attorney Kevin Shenkman challenges the finding that Santa Monica's Latino voters are not concentrated enough to create a District with the majority needed for a Latino candidate to win.

The Appellate Court ruling, Shenkman wrote, "conflicts with the plain language and unanimous interpretation of the statute reached by three other appellate courts."

He quoted the Senate's bill analysis stating that the proposed law "does not require that a minority community be sufficiently concentrated geographically to create a district in which the minority community could elect its own candidate.

"As such, this bill would presumably make it easier to successfully challenge at-large districts."

Three other appellate courts, Shenkman wrote, "agreed that the CVRA 'does not require that the plaintiff prove a ‘compact majority-minority’ district is possible for liability purposes.'”

The petition also challenges the Appeals Court decision to take up the case "de novo," or anew, and question the testimony that led to the lower court's decision against the City.

"In disregarding the long line of authorities calling for deferential review, the Opinion conducts an independent or de novo review of the trial court’s finding of intentional discrimination," Shenkman wrote.

"In doing so, it creates a broad exception to substantial evidence review that will have farreaching consequences."

In addition, Shenkman warns that the ruling "leaves lower courts and current or potential litigants in doubt and confusion about how the CVRA may apply."

Cities that "have begun the process of adopting district elections are now questioning whether they should reverse course in light of the Opinion’s unexpected narrowing of the CVRA," he wrote.

The City has 20 days to file an answer to the petition.

In a statement to the Lookout, City officials said they believe the Court of Appeal ruling "is correct in holding that Santa Monica’s at-large election system has not diluted Latino voting power and so complies with the (CVRA.)

"The Court of Appeal also correctly rejected plaintiffs claim that the City had intentionally discriminated against minority voters in enacting and maintaining its current election system.

"Santa Monica’s election system, which was adopted and has been twice validated by Santa Monica voters, has repeatedly elected candidates preferred by Latino voters," the statement said.

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