Tuesday, October 16, 2001
Ninth Circuit Judges Appear Skeptical of Rights Suit Challenging Allocation of Anti-Gang Funds
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A lawsuit challenging the way Los Angeles County supervisors allocate more than $1.4 million per year in anti-gang funds ran into a skeptical panel of Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges yesterday.
Judge M. Margaret McKeown and Senior Judges Betty B. Fletcher and Dorothy W. Nelson persistently questioned plaintiffs’ attorney Thomas Saenz on his assertion that the impact of the decision on his clients—social service groups that weren’t receiving or seeking the disputed funds themselves—was sufficient to confer standing to sue the county.
Saenz, a staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, represents Proyecto Pastoral at Mission Dolores—an organization associated with Father Gregory Boyle, a Catholic priest long recognized for inner-city activism, and the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The suit was triggered by the Board of Supervisors’ 1997 decision to divide the funds into equal shares for the five supervisor districts, with each supervisor having discretion over how funds were spent in his or her district.
Most of the money came from funding that used to go to Community Youth Gang Services, a private nonprofit organization that disbanded after years of complaints of mishandling of funds and administrative ineptitude.
The supervisors voted 3-2 for the district-allocation plan, with Gloria Molina and Yvonne B. Burke—in whose districts about 78 percent of the CYGS funds were being spent—voting no. The two complained that divvying up the money by district was inefficient and parochial.
SCLC and Proyecto Pastoral claim that the reallocation violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination based on race or national origin in the provision of public services, and are seeking an injunction requiring the county to come up with a new way of spending the money.
Saenz appeared to make little headway in trying to convince the panel that U.S. District Judge Nora Manella was wrong when she ruled that the plaintiffs lack standing. The plaintiffs, he argued, suffered a legally sufficient injury because the elimination of funding for CYGS placed tremendous pressure on their own programs.
But McKeown questioned the rationale, saying it would leave “virtually every county funding decision” open to the prospect of a federal suit. “You would basically eviscerate standing rules,” she maintained, allowing groups like the Girl Scouts, for example, to sue if the county eliminated an after-school program.
Saenz conceded such groups might have standing under his argument, but said that they would be unlikely to prevail as a practical matter.
Fletcher noted that there was nothing in the law that requires the county to use the funds for anti-gang activities, appearing to accept the county’s argument that the plaintiffs lack standing because they would not receive a concrete remedy even if the supervisors were held to have violated the Civil Rights Act.
Nelson suggested that at a minimum, the plaintiffs need to show that their own funding resources have been reduced as a result of the reallocation plan..
Calvin House, a Pasadena lawyer representing the county, echoed the judges’ skepticism.
“I still do not understand the injury…after living with this case for several years,” he told the panel. There was no “causal connection,” he said, between the supervisors’ decision to divide up the money and “what [the plaintiffs] do in the community.”
While the plaintiffs claim to have been impacted by the decision, he argued, they did not present evidence that the pressure caused them to change any aspect of the way they deliver services.
“[The complaint] doesn’t say we do anything because of the pressure,” he argued. “Anybody doing anything in the inner city is going to feel pressure.”
But it wasn’t just the impact on themselves that the plaintiffs were complaining about, Saenz explained on rebuttal, it was the “unequal process” that the supervisors had devised.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company