Friday, August 22, 2014
S.C. Denies Review in Palmdale Voting Rights Dispute
Injunction Barring Certification of 2013 Election Over ‘Vote Dilution’ Left Standing
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court has left standing a Court of Appeal ruling that the California Voting Rights Act applies to charter cities.
At their weekly conference in San Francisco, the justices voted unanimously not to hear an appeal by the City of Palmdale, leaving intact an injunction that bars the city from certifying the results of last year’s municipal election.
This district’s Div. Five held in Jauregui v. City of Palmdale (2014) 226 Cal.App. 781 that “vote dilution”—a set of circumstances in which members of any racial or ethnic group have their political influence minimized though the combination of racially polarized voting and an at-large election system—is a matter of statewide concern. Presiding Justice Paul A. Turner wrote the opinion.
The ruling upholds Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Mooney’s order that Palmdale not certify results of last November’s election pending the outcome of the suit by four local citizens.
The plaintiffs, in an amended complaint filed last year, alleged that only one Latino, and no African Americans, had been elected to the five-member council, despite the fact that the city is 54 percent Latino and nearly 15 black by population. Further, they alleged, no candidate favored by Latino or black voters had been elected in over 10 years.
The city denied that a CVRA violation had occurred, and also argued that as a charter city, it was not subject to the act.
Had the election result been certified, Fred Thompson, a retired college dean, would have been the first African-American elected council member. Thompson became a council member in March, having been appointed to fill a vacancy.
In his statement of decision, issued last August, Mooney agreed that Palmdale had consistently elected candidates preferred by non-Hispanic white voters over those preferred by minorities, satisfying the act’s definition of racially polarized voting. He also concluded that the act deals with a matter of statewide concern, and therefore applies to charter cities.
He subsequently granted a preliminary injunction. Finding that the plaintiffs, “as well as the general public,” would be irreparably harmed if the city went ahead with another at-large election, he enjoined the city from holding such an election, counting the votes at such an election, or certifying the results of such an election.
The Court of Appeal subsequently allowed the election to take place, and the votes to be counted, but agreed with the trial judge that the results could not be certified.
Mooney later granted the plaintiffs a permanent injunction, and established a plan for future district elections. An appeal from that order is pending, with the city’s brief due next week.
The city is separately appealing an award of $3 million in fees and costs to the plaintiffs’ legal team, which includes R. Rex Parris, the mayor of neighboring Lancaster—which has at-large elections. Turner emphasized in his opinion that the court was not expressing a view as to the court will rule on the vote-dilution claim.
He explained that under the state Constitution’s home rule provisions, a state law that conflicts with a city’s charter, or with an ordinance enacted pursuant to such a charter, is inapplicable to the extent of such conflict, provided that the local law deals with “municipal affairs” and does not deal with matters of statewide concern, and that the state law is “reasonably related to…resolution” of the statewide issue and narrowly tailored so as to avoid unnecessary interference with local governance.
Turner agreed that Palmdale elections are municipal affairs, and that the charter’s requirement of at-large elections conflicts with the CVRA’s restrictions on the ability to hold such elections. But he sided with the plaintiffs and the trial judge in concluding that the CVRA reasonably serves the statewide interest in protecting minority voting rights.
“Given the history of our nation and California, there is a convincing basis for the Legislature to act in what otherwise be a local affair—city council elections. Plaintiffs argue that [the CVRA] implement[s] the equal protection and voting rights provisions of the state Constitution…..[Government Code] Section 14031 states the California Voting Rights Act was adopted to implement the voting and equal protections provisions [of] article I, section 7, subdivision (a) and article II, section 2. Further, they argue integrity in the manner in which local elections are conducted is a matter of statewide concern. Plaintiffs argue these constitutional and integrity driven concerns are statewide in nature. We agree.”
Vote dilution, Turner explained, robs election results of their integrity by denying minorities the opportunity to participate in the political process on an equal basis.
The jurist went on to reject the city’s claim that its “plenary authority” over elections, under Art. XI, §5 of the state Constitution, takes precedence over the CVRA. Prior cases have held that a valid general law preempts local regulation, even when the city’s authority is “plenary,” Turner noted.
Justice Sandy Kriegler concurred in the opinion.
Justice Richard Mosk concurred separately. He questioned “whether election in one municipality is a matter of statewide concern,” but agreed that the preliminary injunction was within the trial court’s discretion.
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