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Supreme Court Reverses Voting Rights Ruling

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By Jorge Casuso

August 24, 2023 -- In a major blow to the City, the California Supreme Court on Thursday reversed an Appeals Court ruling that had found Santa Monica's at-large election system did not discriminate against Latino voters.

The court remanded the seven-year-old case to the lower court saying it "relied on an incorrect legal standard to conclude that plaintiffs had failed to satisfy the dilution element of their CVRA (California Voting Rights Act) claim."

"We express no view on the ultimate question of whether the City’s at-large voting system is consistent with the CVRA," the Supreme Court wrote in its 33-page ruling.

But in deciding the plaintiffs had "failed to demonstrate dilution of the Latino vote, (the Appeals Court) did not consider whether voting in council elections was racially polarized."

The ruling directed the Appellate Court to decide "whether, under the correct legal standard, plaintiffs have established that at-large elections dilute their ability to elect their preferred candidate."

The court also must decide "whether plaintiffs have demonstrated the existence of racially polarized voting; and any of the other unresolved issues in the City’s appeal."

Maria Loya, the lead plaintiff in the case praised the court's decision, saying it "rebuked" the City's argument and "supported our standard."

"Today, the California Supreme Court vindicated our position to protect minority voting rights throughout the State of California," Loya said in a statement issued minutes after the ruling was posted.

"Sadly, former Santa Monica Council members and our current Mayor Gleam Davis voted continuously to waste taxpayer's dollars on expensive lawyers to protect their power and privilege."

The City is reviewing the court's opinion, said Tati Simonian, the spokesperson for the City.

"We are assessing the implications of this ruling and will share additional updates as available and appropriate," she said.

The City Council must now decide whether it will continue defending its case in Appellate Court or stop fighting the lawsuit.

Thursday's decision comes nearly three years after the Supreme Court granted the Latino plaintiffs' petition for review of the Appeals Court decision ( "Supreme Court Takes Up Voting Rights Lawsuit," October 21, 2020).

The July 2020 ruling by the the 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned a trial court decision that found Santa Monica's system discriminates against Latino voters and ordered the City to hold district elections.

"The City did not violate the California Voting Rights Act or the California Constitution," Justice John Shepard Wiley Jr. wrote in the unanimous decision.

"We do not reach the remedies issue because there was no wrong to remedy" ("Santa Monica's Election System Does Not Violate Latino's Voting Rights, Appeals Court Rules," July 9, 2020).

The Appeals Court ruling focused on the plaintiffs' failure to prove that Santa Monica's at-large election system "diluted" the voting power of Latinos, who make up 14 percent of the local electorate.

Carving out a District with 30 percent Latino voters, as mandated by Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos, would make little difference, the court said ("Judge Orders Special District Elections for Council in Final Ruling," February 15, 2019).

The plaintiffs' lead attorney Kevin Shenkman said the Appellate 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 it clear that "you don't need to have a majority minority district," Shenkman said.

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