Court Changes Tentative Remedy in CVRA Trial

January 2, 2019

Court Changes Tentative Remedy in CVRA Trial

SANTA MONICA, Calif. – City Attorney Lane Dilg released the following statement in response to the court hearing today on plaintiffs’ ex parte application for clarification of the court’s first amended tentative decision in the case of Pico Neighborhood Association, et al., v. City of Santa Monica:  

“We are deeply concerned by the change in the court’s tentative ruling this morning. 

Latino-preferred candidates have been elected the vast majority of the time under the City’s at-large election system, and no court has ever ordered a City with similar demographics to move to a district-based system.  Moreover, evidence at trial showed that the plaintiffs’ proposed seven-district map was drawn behind closed doors by a hired expert for the plaintiffs with input from only a small number of residents and would likely diminish rather than enhance Latino/a voting power in Santa Monica. 

The City believes its election system complies with all laws. If a final judicial decision determines otherwise, then districts should be drawn with the broad community participation required by the California Elections Code.”

About the Ruling

Today the court granted plaintiffs’ ex parte application for clarification of the court’s first amended tentative decision, issued on December 12, 2018.  The first amended tentative decision would have ordered the City to cease holding elections under the current at-large election system and required that any future elections be district-based and held in accordance with a map depicting only  a “Pico Neighborhood” district.  During a hearing today, the court instead instructed the plaintiffs to draft a proposed statement of decision that would order the City to hold a special election using a seven-district map proposed by the plaintiffs.  The decision remains tentative at this time.  Plaintiffs were granted one additional day, to January 3, 2019, to submit their proposed statement of decision.

Case Background

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 Santa Monica’s at-large election system 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. 

Santa Monica has had at-large elections since 1915.  The current at-large election system was adopted by the voters in 1946, with broad support from prominent minority members of the community.  The system has been affirmed twice by the voters at the polls since.  With this at-large system in place, Santa Monica has a history of electing people of color, including Latino/as, to a variety of local positions. At the time the lawsuit was filed, the City had a Mexican-American Mayor.  Our City Council has had at least one Latino/a member since 2012, and Latino/as and African-Americans have been elected to positions on the City Council, 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, hold at least 1 out of 7 (14%) 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.  The evidence at trial further 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 and over 80% of the time in at-large elections for the SMMUSD, SMC, and Rent Control Boards that Plaintiffs claimed involved “racially polarized” voting.

The City contends that evidence presented at trial did not support plaintiffs’ claims that a move to districts would generate better outcomes for Latino/a voters in Santa Monica.  No district can be drawn in Santa Monica that has more than 30 percent Latino voters – far from a majority – and no 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.  A district system would prevent Latino/a residents from organizing together across neighborhoods, as they can in the at-large system.  In Santa Monica, approximately 2/3 of Latino/a residents live outside of the plaintiffs’ proposed Pico district.  In a seven-district system, these Latino/a voters would be in districts with overwhelmingly white majorities.

On November 8, 2018, the court issued a tentative ruling for the plaintiffs.  The court’s tentative ruling contained no explanation of the court’s ruling.  The City has requested a statement of decision explaining the basis for the tentative ruling.  The court ordered the plaintiffs to draft and file a draft statement of decision by January 2, 2019. 

On December 14, 2018, the court issued a first amended tentative decision that would have ordered the City to cease holding elections under the current at-large election system and required that any future elections be district-based and held in accordance with a map depicting a “Pico Neighborhood” district.  On January 2, 2019, in response to an ex parte application for clarification filed by the plaintiffs, the court, ruling from the bench, altered this tentative decision to state that the City should hold a special election using the seven-district map proposed by the plaintiffs.  The court ordered the plaintiffs to file a proposed statement of decision incorporating this change, and granted them one additional day, to January 3, 2019, to file their proposed statement of decision.   

After allowing for objections from the City, the court will issue a final decision.

The City still hopes to convince the court to change its tentative decision and rule in the City’s favor, as plaintiffs’ claims lack merit and the evidence at trial demonstrates that Santa Monica’s at-large election system for City Council members is fair and inclusive and does not dilute Latino/a voting power. 

Additional information about the case can be found here: www.santamonica.gov/Election-Litigation-PNA-V-Santa-Monica-FAQ  

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