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By Jorge Casuso

October 21, 2020 -- The voting rights lawsuit against the City of Santa Monica is headed to the California Supreme Court after it granted the Latino plaintiffs' petition for review Wednesday.

The Court's decision -- posted on its website -- depublishes an Appellate Court ruling in July that found the City's at-large election system does not discriminate against Latino voters.

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"The parties are ordered to brief the following issue: What must a plaintiff prove in order to establish vote dilution under the California Voting Rights Act?" the Court wrote.

Wednesday's decision deals a major blow to a city that prides itself on its liberal policies but has spent millions fighting a lawsuit backed by some of the nation and state's leading progressive organizations.

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Among the parties filing amicus letters asking the Supreme Court to reverse the decision were the nation's two largest Latino organizations, three minority caucuses in the State legislature and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference ("Voting Rights Lawsuit Pits Progressive Leaders Against Santa Monica," September 23, 2020).

The City had applauded the Appellate Court decision that overturned the trial court ruling ordering district elections ("Santa Monica's Election System Does Not Violate Latino's Voting Rights, Appeals Court Rules," July 9, 2020).

The Supreme Court is expected to focus on the Appellate Court's contention that Latinos, who make up 14 percent of the local electorate, lack the numbers to win in the 30 percent Latino District ordered by the lower court in February 2019.

Kevin Shenkman, the attorney for plaintiffs Maria Loya and the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA), argued that the court's decision "completely ignores the section (of the CVRA) that says you don't have to have a majority minority district."

The statute, the legislative history and two appellate court decisions have made that clear, Shenkman said.

His argument was echoed in amicus letters filed by the California Secretary of State and the original backers of the state's voting rights law, among others ("Secretary of State, Original Backers of Voting Rights Law Support Plaintiffs' Appeal in Santa Monica Case," September 9, 2020).

City officials said they believe the Supreme Court will agree with the Appeals Court "that plaintiffs failed to establish vote dilution and, as a result, failed to prove" that Santa Monica's election system violates the CVRA.

"The evidence at trial demonstrated that the City’s at-large elections do not diminish the voting power of Latino voters, who have repeatedly elected their preferred candidates," City officials said in a statement.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday directed the Reporter of Decisions "not to publish in the Official Appellate Reports" the Appeals Court opinion filed July 9.

As a result the decision cannot be cited in other cases.

Supporters of the lawsuit warned that the decision could roll back the gains made under the 2002 voting rights law, which has paved the way for district elections that enhance the power of minority voters across the state.

Shenkman on Wednesday applauded the Supreme Court's decision to take up the case and blasted the City for wasting taxpayer dollars fighting against minority voting rights.

"While laying off employees and cutting programs that help the most vulnerable, the City Council has spent tens of millions of dollars to fight against minority voting rights not just in Santa Monica but in California to protect their political futures," he said.

"It is disgusting, it is a breach of the public trust, and all of them should be ousted," Shenkman said.

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