Santa Monica City Council Votes to Appeal Judgment in Lawsuit Challenging Its Use of At-Large Elections

February 21, 2019

Santa Monica City Council Votes to Appeal Judgment in Lawsuit Challenging Its Use of At-Large Elections

SANTA MONICA, Calif. – At a special meeting tonight, February 21, 2019, the Santa Monica City Council voted to appeal the judgment in the case of Pico Neighborhood Association, et al. v. City of Santa Monica. This is the next step in the City’s legal case to defend Santa Monica’s at-large election system for its City Council, which was upheld by voters in 1975 and 2002.

“Tonight the Santa Monica City Council voted to continue to defend an election system where each councilmember represents every member of our community for a stronger and more unified Santa Monica,” said Mayor Gleam Davis. “As Mayor, I represent every neighborhood and I’m accountable to every voter, not just those of a particular neighborhood. We want to work together in tackling large issues facing the City as a whole, including safety, climate change, homelessness, affordable housing, economic growth and community well-being.” 

The appeal challenges the trial court’s findings that the City’s at-large election system violated the California Voting Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution. The decision issued on Friday, February 15, 2019 adopted the plaintiff’s proposed judgment. The judgment calls for a special election on July 2, 2019, for all seven seats on the Santa Monica City Council using a map that was developed by plaintiffs’ paid expert without a full and inclusive public process. 

“This case is about defending the democratic process in Santa Monica,” said Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr. from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, one of the lawyers representing the City. “The evidence shows that City Council candidates preferred by Latino voters won more often than they lost and a move to districts would actually dilute Latino/a voting power, which is why Santa Monica’s case is unique and requires further review. This case poses several novel and important issues of law not resolved by California appellate courts or the United States Supreme Court.”  

The next step will be filing a notice of appeal to initiate review by the California appellate courts. 

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 violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) and the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution.  

Santa Monica has had at-large elections since 1915. The current at-large election system for the City Council was adopted by the voters in 1946, with broad support from prominent minority members of the community. The system 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, at the time of trial, Latino/as, who make up approximately 13% of Santa Monica voters, held 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.  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 and would be unable to organize together across neighborhoods, as they can in the at-large system.   

On November 8, 2018, the court issued a tentative ruling for the plaintiffs. The City requested a statement of decision explaining the basis for the tentative ruling, which the Court ordered the plaintiffs to draft.  On January 3, 2019, plaintiffs submitted their proposed statement of decision and proposed judgment.    

On February 15, 2019, the trial judge adopted (with some minor changes) the plaintiffs’ proposed statement of decision and proposed judgment, and issued them as its final judgment.   

As explained in its pleadings, the City contends the judgment is wrong because the evidence at trial demonstrated that Santa Monica’s at-large election system for City Council members is fair and inclusive and does not dilute Latino/a voting power. The City also contends that any seven-district map drawn for the City should be developed through a full and inclusive public process in accordance with the California Elections Code. 

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

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