Parties Agree that Order Requiring July 2, 2019 Election Is Stayed While Appeal is Pending; Trial Court Declines City’s Request for Confirmation that Paragraph 9 of Judgment in Pico Neighborhood Association v. City of Santa Monica is Stayed Pending Appeal

March 6, 2019

Parties Agree that Order Requiring July 2, 2019 Election Is Stayed While Appeal is Pending; Trial Court Declines City’s Request for Confirmation that Paragraph 9 of Judgment in Pico Neighborhood Association v. City of Santa Monica is Stayed Pending Appeal

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — The trial judge in Pico Neighborhood Association, et al. v. City of Santa Monica today declined to clarify that Paragraph 9 of the judgment in Pico Neighborhood Association v. City of Santa Monica is stayed pending consideration of the City’s appeal by the California Court of Appeal.

On February 22, 2019, the City filed a notice of appeal of the judgment Santa Monica City Council voted to appeal the judgment in the case of Pico Neighborhood Association, et al. v. City of Santa Monica. This was the next step in the City’s legal case to defend Santa Monica’s at-large election system for its City Council, which was adopted by the voters in 1946 and upheld by voters in 1975 and 2002.

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 called 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.

All parties agree that Paragraph 8 of the judgment, requiring the City to hold a district-based election on July 2, 2019, is subject to a mandatory stay while the City’s appeal is pending. 

On February 28, 2019, the City filed an ex parte application asking the Court to clarify that Paragraph 9 of the judgment is also subject to a mandatory stay while the appeal is pending.  This portion of the order prohibits any person not elected through a district-based election using the map proposed by the plaintiffs and adopted by the court from serving on the City Council after August 15, 2019.  The City’s application explained that Paragraph 9 effectively requires the City to hold a district-based election before August 15, 2019.  The City therefore contends that Paragraph 9 is a mandatory injunction and subject to a stay as a matter of law.

Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, one of the lawyers representing the City, said: “The City remains confident that any requirement to hold a special election this summer – as well as any requirement that the current Council members must vacate their offices by August 15 – has been stayed automatically as a result of the City’s appeal, under settled California law.  The trial court declined the City’s request for confirmation.  But given the importance of these issues, and the serious disruption of the electoral process that would follow if the City were somehow forced to hold an election this summer or eliminate its duly elected Council during the appeal, the City is considering all options to eliminate any uncertainty – including seeking relief from the Court of Appeal.”

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.

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