Thursday, December 7, 2006
C.A.: State Voting Rights Act Does Not Violate Equal Protection
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Fifth District Court of Appeal upheld the California Voting Rights Act yesterday against claims that it violated state and federal equal protection guarantees.
The court reversed Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Roger M. Beauchesne, who ruled that the CVRA—which gives a cause of action to members of any racial or ethnic group that can establish that its members’ votes are diluted though the combination of racially polarized voting and an at-large election system— is facially invalid.
Beauchesne granted judgment on the pleadings in favor of the city of Modesto and city officials in an action brought by Latino voters.
In Modesto’s at-large election system, candidates for the City Council run for individual seats to which numbers are arbitrarily assigned, and for each of which all the city’s voters may vote, the plaintiffs alleged. To win, a candidate must receive a majority of the votes cast for the seat for which he or she has chosen to run.
The plaintiffs alleged that this system, combined with a pattern of racially polarized voting, regularly prevented Latino voters from electing any candidates of their choice or influencing city government. Although Latinos constitute 25.6 percent of the city’s population of 200,000, only one Latino has been elected to the City Council since 1911, plaintiffs asserted.
The complaint contained  a single cause of action for violation of the CVRA
and asked the court to impose a district-based voting system as a remedy.
On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the city, as a subordinate entity of the state, may not challenge a state statute as violating the city’s rights under the due process or equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.
But Justice Rebecca A. Wiseman, writing for the Court of Appeal, held that the case presented an exception to the general rule plaintiffs asserted.
“The point of the no-standing rule is to prevent local governments, whether as plaintiffs or defendants, from using certain provisions of the federal Constitution to obtain invalidation of laws passed by their creator, the state,” the justice explained. “This notion has no application where the truly interested parties—citizens or constituents of the local government entity—undisputedly do have standing and the entity merely asserts rights on their behalf.”
But applying a rational-basis test, Wiseman held that the CVRA passes constitutional muster, saying:
“Curing vote dilution is a legitimate government interest and creation of a private right of action like that in the CVRA is rationally related to it.”
The city argued that the CVRA is unconstitutional because it uses race to identify the polarized voting that causes vote dilution and prevents groups from electing candidates. The city claimed this use of race constitutes reverse racial discrimination and is a form of unconstitutional affirmative action benefiting only certain racial groups.
Wiseman disagreed with the city’s characterization, saying that the CVRA is race-neutral and does not favor any race over others.
“The reality in California is that no racial group forms a majority. As a result, any racial group can experience the kind of vote dilution the CVRA was designed to combat, including Whites. Just as non-Whites in majority-White cities may have a cause of action under the CVRA, so may Whites in majority-non-White cities.”
Wiseman said that, although the city failed to show facial invalidity, it could attempt to show “as-applied” invalidity later if liability is proven and a specific remedy, such as one that uses race to draw districts, is considered that warrants the attempt.
Justices Thomas A. Harris and Dennis A. Cornell concurred in the opinion.
The case is Enrique Sanchez v. City of Modesto, 06 5945
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company