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New Attorney General Takes No Position on "Particular Claims" But Criticizes Appellate Court Ruling in Voting Rights Case

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By Jorge Casuso

Editor's note: This report was updated at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to clarify that Attorney General Rob Bonta's brief to the California Supreme Court refers to previous court decisions.

July 13, 2021 -- An eagerly awaited brief submitted Monday by the State Attorney General takes no position on "particular claims or factual disputes" in the Santa Monica voting rights case before the California Supreme Court.

The brief from newly appointed Attorney General Rob Bonta, however, criticizes an Appellate Court decision in favor of the City, while questioning several of the City's key assumptions.

"Contrary to suggestions by the appellate court," a plaintiff is not required to demonstrate that a district could be drawn where the protected class is a majority" or "a near-majority, as the City of Santa Monica argues," Bonta writes.

Instead, a plaintiff needs to demonstrate that under an at-large system a protected class has "less ability to meaningful (sic) impact an election’s outcome than it would have if the at-large system had not been adopted."

Bonta also questions the City's standard that "focuses almost exclusively on the imposition of districts as a remedy" for a voting rights violation.

The text of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), he writes, "provides that districting is not the only possible remedy."

Alternatives could include "modified at-large voting systems, such as cumulative voting (where one voter may cast multiple votes for a single candidate) or limited voting (where one voter may cast only one vote despite there being multiple open seats)."

Bonta also question's the City’s standard that "focuses almost exclusively on a protected class’s ability to elect its chosen candidate."

The CVRA, he writes, "protects both the protected class’s ability 'to elect candidates of its choice' and its ability 'to influence the outcome of an election.'”

"Contrary to the City’s argument, under the CVRA, a protected class’s achievement of such opportunities is not 'meaningless,'" he writes. "It is precisely what the Legislature, in enacting the CVRA, intended to protect."

While cautioning a court to "avoid overly focusing on a single snapshot in time," Bonta said it "can also consider whether the multimember board that currently exists already reflects the demographic makeup of the community."

That is one of the arguments made by the City, which contends there were two Latinos elected to the Council when the lawsuit was filed -- Tony Vazquez and Gleam Davis, whose birth father is Mexican.

Bonta said a court also should consider whether alternative systems, such as districts, "would instead harm the protected class."

"For instance, if multiple members of the protected class on a governing body come from the same district, a district electoral system may in fact lead to less influence on the protected class’s part," Bonta wrote.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, there was no Latino Councilmember from the Pico Neighborhood, which is at the center of the lawsuit.

In its brief to the Supreme Court, the City sought to use the recent election of two Latino Councilmembers from the Pico Neighborhood -- Oscar de la Torre and Christine Parra -- to bolster its case.

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