Santa Monica Election Litigation FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

Pico Neighborhood Association and Maria Loya v. City of Santa Monica

Los Angeles Superior Court, Case Number BC616804


What is this lawsuit about? 

The Santa Monica City Charter establishes that members of the Santa Monica City Council and of the governing board of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) will be elected from the City at large.  In April 2016,  plaintiffs Pico Neighborhood Association, Maria Loya, and Advocates for Malibu Public Schools filed a complaint in the California Superior Court alleging that the at-large election system for both the City Council and SMMUSD Board dilutes Latino/a voting power in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) and discriminates against Latino/a voters in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution.  Advocates for Malibu Public Schools later withdrew from the suit following a determination by the SMMUSD Board that the lawsuit would delay consideration of separating the Malibu and Santa Monica school districts.  The remaining plaintiffs filed a first amended complaint on February 23, 2017, which challenged the Charter provision requiring at-large election of Santa Monica City Council members. This first amended complaint was the subject of the trial in this case.   

What is the California Voting Rights Act? 

The California Voting Rights Act was enacted in 2001.  The law purported to make it easier for plaintiffs in California to challenge allegedly discriminatory voting practices, compared with the federal Voting Rights Act.  But  prior to the Court of Appeal decision in this case,  California’s courts ha d  never definitively resolved what a plaintiff must prove to show a violation of the CVRA.   The Court of Appeal opinion in this case holds that a plaintiff seeking relief under the CVRA  in a case such as this  must establish five elements:  (1)  plaintiff’s membership in a protected class; (2) plaintiff’s residence in the political subdivision being sued; (3) th at  political subdivision ’s use of  an at-large  method of  election; (4)  racially polarized voting  in the political subdivision’s elections; and (5) vote dilution.  The CVRA also mandates the award of attorneys’ fees to prevailing plaintiffs, but there is no corresponding right of defendants to recover attorneys’ fees if they prevail, unless the court finds the suit to be “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation,” which is a very high standard.   

Have other California cities been sued or threatened with suits under the California Voting Rights Act?

The same private plaintiffs’ attorneys that represent the plaintiffs in this suit against the City of Santa Monica have sued and threatened to sue scores of cities across California.  Since 2001, approximately 115 California cities of all sizes, including some with less than 10,000 residents, have been sued or threatened with suits under the CVRA seeking to compel them to change to district-based elections.  Most municipalities that have received litigation demand letters have settled prior to litigation.  Many of the targeted California cities have believed as strongly in their at-large election systems as the City does, but have reluctantly switched to district elections, out of fear of overwhelming legal costs and concern that a defense might not succeed. 

Have these other suits resulted in significant increases in minority representation?

As used by these plaintiffs’ attorneys, the CVRA has generated millions in attorneys’ fees for the plaintiffs’ attorneys and forced vast changes in local election systems, while failing to significantly increase minority representation. According to the Los Angeles Times, of cities that switched to districts in response to litigation demands between June 2016 and April 2017, less than one-third saw any increase in minority representation. 

What happened at trial in this case?

Trial began on August 1, 2018, in Los Angeles Superior Court.  The presentation of evidence was completed on September 11, 2018, and the parties were then ordered to file briefs making their arguments regarding the evidence presented at trial.  Plaintiffs filed their closing brief on September 25, 2018.  The City’s closing brief was filed on October 15, 2018.  Plaintiffs filed their rebuttal closing brief on October 25, 2018.  On November 8, 2018, the court issued a tentative ruling in favor of plaintiffs on both their CVRA and Equal Protection causes of action.  Thereafter, both sides filed briefs addressing remedies.  Plaintiffs filed their remedies brief on November 19, 2018.  the City filed its responsive brief regarding remedies on November 26, 2018.  Plaintiffs filed their reply regarding remedies on December 4, 2018. 

How did the trial court rule?

The trial court’s tentative ruling contained no explanation.  Under California statutes and court rules, the City was entitled to have the court file a statement of decision explaining the factual and legal bases for its tentative decision.  On November 15, 2018, the City filed a request for a statement of decision.  The City’s request set out in detail the many legal and factual issues the City believed the Court would need to resolve in arriving at a final ruling.  On November 26, 2018, plaintiffs filed their objection and response to the request for a statement of decision in which, among other things, they requested that the court delegate to them the drafting of the statement of decision.  On November 28, 2018, the court issued an order granting plaintiffs’ request and directing them to file and serve a proposed statement of decision and proposed judgment by January 2, 2019 (later extended to January 3, 2019).

On January 3, 2019, plaintiffs filed their proposed statement of decision and proposed judgment.  On January 18, 2019, the City filed objections to the proposed statement of decision and objections to the proposed judgment.  In these documents, the City laid out in detail the many legal and factual errors in plaintiffs’ proposals.  On February 15, 2019, the trial court issued its final statement of decision and judgment, adopting the proposals submitted by the plaintiffs with a few minor changes.  The trial court ruled in favor of plaintiffs on both their CVRA and Equal Protection causes of action.  The trial court ordered as a remedy that the City change to district-based elections using a district map prepared by plaintiffs’ expert without any of the public hearing process for the drawing of districts set out in California Elections Code Section 10010.  The trial court ordered the City to conduct a district-based election on July 2, 2019, the court also ordered that no City Council members elected at-large could continue to hold their seats past August 15, 2019.  

Does the City agree with the trial court’s final ruling?

The City  appeal ed because it  continue d  to believe that plaintiffs’ claims lack ed  merit, and that the evidence at trial demonstrate d  that Santa Monica’s at-large election system for City Council members is fair and inclusive and does not dilute Latino/a voting power.  

First, Santa Monica’s demographics differ substantially from other cities that have litigated CVRA cases.  Latino/as constitute approximately 13.6% of citizen voting age population and 16.1% of total population in Santa Monica.  By contrast, the relevant minority groups constituted approximately 58.6% of the total population in Palmdale, 49.2% in Highland, and 40.4% in Santa Clara, the three other cities that have gone to trial and lost on CVRA claims.  

Second, Santa Monica has a history of electing people of color, including Latino/as, to a variety of local positions.  As the Court of Appeal opin i on notes,  a t the time the lawsuit was filed, Santa Monica had  two council members who self-identified as Latinos .   Both had  been elected to  serve on the  Council  since  at least  2012.  In addition,  Latino/as  and   African-Americans  have been elected to positions on the Rent Control Board, SMMUSD Board, and Community College Board.  In fact, without district-based elections, Latino/as, who make up approximately 13% of Santa Monica voters, h eld  at least  2  out of 7 ( 28 %) of the City Council seats and 4 out of 19 (21%) of the City’s other elected positions on the Rent Control, SMMUSD, and Community College Boards.  

Third, the evidence at trial showed that under the at-large election system, between 2002 and 2016, candidates preferred by Latino/a voters won at least 70% of the time in Santa Monica City Council races. Even in the limited sample of seven City Council elections relied on by plaintiffs, candidates preferred by Latino/a voters won at least 60% of the time.  The evidence at trial also showed that Latino-surnamed candidates who were also preferred by Latino voters won over 80% of the time among Santa Monica voters in the at-large elections for the SMMUSD, Community College, and Rent Control Boards that Plaintiffs claimed involved “racially polarized” voting.  

How did the Court of Appeal rule  on plaintiffs ’ CVRA claim ?  

The Court of Appeal ruled that dilution was a  required  element of a  CVRA claim and that plaintiffs had failed to prove dilution .  As a result, the Court of Appeal ordered judgment to be entered in favor of the City on this claim.  

It is impossible to draw a majority-Latino district in Santa Monica because Latino/as do not constitute a majority of voters in the Pico neighborhood or any other neighborhood.  Plaintiffs agree that no district can be drawn in Santa Monica that has more than 30 percent Latino voters – far from a majority, and no previous court adjudicating a vote-dilution claim has ever ordered the creation of districts where the citizen-voting-age population of the relevant minority group in the purportedly remedial district would be this low.   The Court of Appeal held that plaintiffs’ effort to show dilution based on such a district was insufficient.  As the  Cour t  of Appeal explained, “Assu m ing 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.   [Plaintiffs]  thus failed to show that 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 i n 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.   S mall numbers ar e.”  

A district system would  also  prevent Latino/a residents from organizing together across neighborhoods, as they can in the at-large system.  Approximately two-thirds of Latino/a residents in Santa Monica live outside of the proposed Pico district.  In the district system proposed by the plaintiffs, these Latino/a voters would be in districts with overwhelmingly white majorities.  

Because the Court of Appeal found no dilution, a  required CVRA element, it did not address the City’s arguments   that there was no legally significant racially polarized voting  and that Latino/a voters have  elected their candidates of choice more often than not.  As discussed above , however, the Court of Appeal noted that at the time this lawsuit was filed, the City Council had two out of seven members ( 28%) who self-identified as Latino/a,  approximately  twice the percentage (13.6%) of Lati n o/a voters  in  Santa  Monica .    

How did the Court of Appeal rule on plaintiffs’ Equal Protection claim?  

The Court of Appeal held that the trial court applied an erroneous legal standard.  Applying the correct legal standard, the Court of Appeal held that  plaintiffs failed to prove that the City adopted or maintained the at-large el ection  system  for the purpose of discriminating against minorities.  As a result, the Court of Appeal ordered judgment  to be  entered in favor of  the City on this claim.   

The Court of Appeal held that the trial court erred in finding discriminatory i ntent in 1946, when the City adopted its at-large system, and in 1992, when the City left this system unchan ged.    

With respect to  1946, the Court of Appeal cited the evidence showing that 100  percent of the leaders of the minority community who expressed a public  opinion  supported the City’s action, while none oppo sed it.  As the Court of Appeal explained, “The people who knew best and cared most detected no  City purpose of race discrimination against them.  As a matter of law, this unanimous evidence is a litmus test dictating a finding in the City’s favor.  The City in  1946 did not act with a purpose of race discrimination.”  

With respect to 1992, the Court of Appeal reviewed both the report of the Charter Review Commission and the videotape of the City Council meeting at which that report was  discussed and debated.   The court found the public discussion “a model of civic engagement: substantive, open, participatory, and cordial.  T here was n ever a hint of hostility  to minorities.   To the contrary, speaker after speaker sought ways of increasing minority empowerment .”   Having studied the videotape of the 1992  Council meeting, the Court of Appeal found “nothing showing a purpose of racial discrimination.”  The  C ourt  o f Appeal  held  as a matter of law that the series of actions taken in 1992 did not demonstrate race discrimina tion.  

What are the next steps?  

In its ruling issued July 9, 2020,  t he C ourt of Appeal reversed  the trial court, awarded costs to the City, and directed the trial court to enter judgment for the City. Plaintiffs filed a petition for rehearing on July 24, 2020, which the Court of Appeal denied on August 5, 2020.  Once the Court of Appeal’s decision become s final, plaintiffs will have 10 days to request review b y the California Supreme Court.  That review is discretionary, and the Supreme Court retains the right  not to grant revi ew.  

Would a district-based election system be better for Santa Monica?  

The C ourt  of Appeal  has held th at  the City's current at-large election system  does not  discriminate s  against Latino/a voters in violation of statutory and constitutional law.  The policy question of whether a district-based election system would be better for Santa Monica is best left to the voters.  Santa Monica residents have voted on the issue of whether to amend the Charter to switch to district-based elections and have twice rejected proposals to move to district-based elections – in 1975 (rejecting failed Proposition 3) and in 2002 (rejecting failed Measure HH).  One benefit of the at-large system is that it allows every resident to vote for every member of the City Council, casting ballots for three to four Council members every two years.  Under a district-based system, residents would be limited to voting for only one Council member, and only once every four years.  But if voters prefer a district-based system for policy reasons, they have the opportunity to propose a charter amendment through the democratic process.  The recent success of the term limit amendment demonstrates that where voters want a change in the election system, it will happen.   

Where can I find more information?

Community members who wish to stay apprised can find relevant pleadings online at:  The FAQs and webpage will be updated as the trial proceeds.

Pico Neighborhood Association, et al. v. City of Santa Monica One Sheet >