City mounts new effort to torpedo voting lawsuit

By Matthew Hall on in News

The City of Santa Monica has filed a new argument to have a lawsuit challenging its voting system thrown out of court.

The city filed a summary judgment motion last week asking the court to rule in its favor and terminate the lawsuit before going to trial.

Plaintiffs (Pico Neighborhood Association, including co-chair Oscar de la Torre and his wife Maria Loya) have accused the city of violating the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) with the use of at-large elections. The suit seeks to force the City to move to a district-based system.

The Act outlaws at-large elections that impair the ability of a protected class to elect candidates or influence an election. According to the suit, racially polarized voting occurred in four instances over the past seventy years: when Tony Vazquez lost in 1994, Josefina Aranda in 2002, Maria Loya in 2004, and Oscar de la Torre in 2016.

A previous attempt by City Hall to have the suit terminated failed last year.

In this case, the city said “the lawsuit fails as a matter of law and undisputed facts, because the at-large election system that plaintiffs challenge under the California Voting Rights Act (“CVRA”) and the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution has not caused any dilution of Latino/a voting strength in Santa Monica.  On the contrary, Santa Monica’s Latino/a voters can and do exercise their full voting power to elect the City Council candidates they prefer.”

Kevin Shenkman, the Malibu attorney who has brought the case in Santa Monica after winning a slew of others in cities across Southern California, said the City doesn’t understand the law.

“The City’s motion continues to demonstrate its misunderstanding of the California Voting Rights Act, and we expect that it will ultimately be denied, just like the City’s similar motion was denied by the trial court, appellate court and California Supreme Court,” he said.

In a statement, City Hall said the city’s Latino/a voters live throughout the city and cannot be clustered into a single voting district. The city also argues non-white candidates have been successful in seeking citywide office citing de la Torre’s repeated wins as a member of the school board. According to the City, about “though Latino/as account for just over one-eighth of the City’s population, they hold roughly one-fifth of the City’s elective offices.”

Shenkman said the City’s position perpetuates racist arguments.

“It is particularly disturbing that a purportedly progressive city as Santa Monica would parrot the misguided arguments of only the most racist right-wingers against minority voting rights, and even pay an “expert” who has been responsible for perpetuating and defending some of the most notable episodes of state-sponsored racial discrimination in the United States over the past 30 years,” he said.

In addition to arguing that the lawsuit would create an unconstitutional race-based voting district, the City said the suit was filed by attorney’s “who have filed, or threatened to file, similar CVRA lawsuits against a number of other California cities, seeking, as they do here, payment by the cities of their attorneys’ fees.”

Shenkman said the City’s statement is hypocritical given their use of outside attorneys.

“Finally, with respect to the City’s criticism of Plaintiffs for seeking to recover their attorneys’ fees – for work necessitated by the City’s recalcitrance and refusal to abide by the law – we will discount our fees to the same extent that the City’s high-priced lawyers at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP (the same firm responsible for giving us George W. Bush – see Bush v. Gore) return the millions of dollars the City has paid to them,” he said.

A hearing on the motion is set for June 14, if the motion fails, the City has said it will proceed to trial.

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