Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Court of Appeal Rejects Challenge to State Assembly Redistricting
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A legislative redistricting plan does not violate the state Constitution merely because it splits a city, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The justices affirmed a Sacramento Superior Court judge’s ruling that lawmakers acted within their discretion when they drew up and passed the current redistricting plan five years ago. Santa Clara voters had challenged the decision to split their city between Assembly District 22 and District 24.
District 24 is currently represented by Rebecca Cohn, D-San Jose, and District 22 by Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View. Most of Santa Clara is in Lieber’s district.
The plaintiffs argued that splitting the city violated Art. XXI, Sec. 1(e) of the Constitution, which mandates that “[t]he geographical integrity of any city, county, or city and county, or of any geographical region shall be respected to the extent possible without violating the requirements of any other subdivision of this section.”
The Santa Clara residents’ suit was originally filed in Santa Clara Superior Court, then transferred to Sacramento where it was coordinated with other suits challenging the 2001 reapportionment. Judge Gail Ohanesian rejected all of the challenges, and the Santa Clara voters were the only plaintiffs to appeal.
While their suit directly involved only their own city, a ruling in their favor would have had a ripple effect throughout the state, throwing into doubt the validity of the entire redistricting scheme a little more than two months prior to legislative primaries.
State lawyers had urged the justices to rule that courts lacked jurisdiction to consider the type of challenge raised by the Santa Clara plaintiffs. The Court of Appeal disagreed, but otherwise backed the state’s position that the districts were drawn within the requirements of the Constitution.
Art. XXI, Sec. 1(e) “is the most flexible of the reapportionment standards and provides the greatest discretion to our state Legislature,” Presiding Justice Arthur Scotland wrote. Only when the redistricting plan “inevitably poses a total and fatal conflict with constitutional provisions” will it fail to pass muster under that subsection, the presiding justice wrote.
Scotland rejected the plaintiffs’ contention that the burden was on the state to show a necessity for splitting the city. Both state and federal precedent establish that judicial review of legislative reapportionment is highly deferential, the jurist said, adding that the state had made a sufficient showing of a legitimate reason for the split.
Splitting municipalities in the Santa Clara Valley, he elaborated, is a reasonable response to the region’s geography, the requirement that district’s be reasonably equal in population, and Voting Rights Act concerns.
Scotland explained that redistricting in the valley is impacted by its location south of San Francisco Bay. Because San Francisco is 42,000 short of having enough people for two Assembly districts, the Legislature must either run district boundaries across a bridge or run boundaries south from San Francisco into other jurisdictions, while East Bay communities also lack sufficient population to form whole districts.
Further complicating the situation, Scotland explained, is that fact that Merced County to the east of Santa Clara and Monterey County to the south are “preclearance” jurisdictions under the Voting Rights Act, meaning that any districting affecting those counties must be approved by the Justice Department. The city of Santa Clara, he further noted, is just west of San Jose, and a plan that put all of Santa Clara in one district might raise Voting Rights Act concerns by forcing a reduction of the Latino population in an adjoining San Jose district.
It was not necessary for the state to show that it had to split Santa Clara in order to avoid fragmenting the Latino population in San Jose, Scotland added.
“In performing the reapportionment task, the Legislature is entitled to...much leeway.... Accordingly, we conclude the Legislature may properly adopt a reapportionment plan that minimizes the chance of a challenge based on the Voting Rights Act. In choosing one plan over a suggested alternative plan, the Legislature need not first prove the alternative necessarily would violate the Voting Rights Act.”
The case is Nadler v. Schwarzenegger, 06 S.O.S. 1571.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company