Friday, July 10, 2020
Court of Appeal:
Santa Monica’s At-Large Election System Is Valid
Wiley’s Opinion Reverses Judgment Requiring by-District Contests for City Council Seats; Palazuelos’s Finding That Current System Denies Equal Protection to Latinos Is Rejected
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday reversed an order that the City of Santa Monica hold by-district elections for the City Council, holding that the current at-large system does not deny equal protection to the city’s Latino population or violate the state’s statutory law.
Justice John Shepard Wiley of Div. Eight wrote the opinion which disputes Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos’s conclusion that the city, in setting up the present system in 1946 and retaining it in 1992 when the prospect of reverting to by-the-district elections was studied and debated, acted with discriminatory intent.
Proceeding under that impression, the judge declared, following a trial, that “some alternative method of election would enhance Latino voting power,” and was necessary to afford equal protection to that population.
Wiley pointed out, however, that there were two Latino members of the seven-person City Council at the time of the trial—29 percent of that body—which, he said, “is about twice the percentage of voting-age Latinos in Santa Monica” who comprise 13.64 percent of the city’s 90,000 residents.
Evidence of Purpose
To succeed in an equal-protection challenge under the California Constitution, “[p]laintiffs must show the government adopted or maintained the election system for the purpose of racial discrimination,” Wiley wrote, adding that a “knowledge of a disparate impact is not enough.”
The jurist declared:
“The trial court departed from these equal protection standards. Its departure invalidates its conclusions. The trial court erroneously concluded the City acted with discriminatory intent in 1946, when the City adopted its at-large system, and in 1992, when the City left this at-large system unchanged. But there was no evidence the City had the purpose of engaging in racial discrimination on either occasion. For this reason, the City’s actions did not violate equal protection.”
Leaders of the Latino community unanimously supported the switch to at-large elections in 1946, Wiley noted, proceeding to deride the contention of the plaintiff, Pico Neighborhood Association, that this factor should be disregarded. He said:
“Pico’s claim is unprecedented. It asks us to rule a city and its electorate engaged in hostile discrimination against minorities when that city and its electorate did what minority leaders asked. Pico cites no case with that illogical holding.
“Pico does not explain how it, today, has greater insight into the racial realities of 1946 than the unified leaders of the minority communities who, in 1946, lived in Santa Monica. Pico does not argue all these leaders were somehow tricked, out of touch, muzzled, or corrupted. Pico simply suggests their views do not matter. This is error.”
Wiley reported that his panel viewed the videotape of the 1992 City Council meeting at which the prospect of instituting by-district elections was intensively discussed, and said:
“It contains nothing showing a purpose of racial discrimination.”
Pico also asserted that the current system violates the California Voting Rights Act. It doesn’t, Wiley said.
Under that act, he explained, a “necessary element” would be proof that the at-large method impairs “the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election, as a result of the dilution or the abridgment of the rights of voters” who belong to that class.
“Pico did not prove dilution,” he proclaimed.
Pico provided a proposed map dividing the city into seven districts, which Palazuelos adopted. In the Pico District, surrounding Pico Boulevard, there would be a 30 percent Latino population, as opposed to the 13.64 percent in an at-large election.
Makes No Difference
Wiley provided this discussion:
“Assuming race-based voting, 30 percent is not enough to win a majority and to elect someone to the City Council, even in a district system. There was no dilution because the result with one voting system is the same as the result with the other: no representation.
“Pico thus failed to show the at-large system was the reason Latinos allegedly have had trouble getting elected to the City Council. The reason for the asserted lack of electoral success in Santa Monica would appear to be that there are too few Latinos to muster a majority, no matter how the City might slice itself into districts or wards. At-large voting is not to blame. Small numbers are.”
The case is Pico Neighborhood Association v. City of Santa Monica, B295935.
Representing the city were City Attorney Lane Dilg, George Cardona as special counsel, and Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., Marcellus A. McRae, Kahn A. Scolnick, Tiaunia N. Henry and Daniel R. Adler of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
Attorneys on appeal for the plaintiffs were Kevin I. Shenkman, Mary R. Hughes, and Andrea A. Alarcon of Shenkman & Hughes; Robert Rubin; Morris J. Baller, Laura L. Ho, Anne P. Bellows, and Ginger L. Grimes of Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian & Ho; R. Rex Parris and Ellery S. Gordon of the Parris Law Firm; Milton Grimes; and Paul Hoffman and John Washington of Schonbrun Seplow Harris & Hoffman.
Special Election Ordered
In her Feb. 15, 2019 decision, Palazuelos ordered:
“Defendant shall hold a district-based special election, consistent with the district map attached hereto on July 2, 2019 for each of the seven seats on the Santa Monica City Council.”
Those elected in 2018 would leave office on Aug. 15 unless chosen in the July election, she decreed.
The city filed a petition for a writ of supersedeas on March 8, 2019, which the Court of Appeal granted 10 days later, staying the order for a special election.
Copyright 2020, Metropolitan News Company