City of Santa Monica Files Opening Brief in Appeal of Trial Court Decision in Election Litigation

October 18, 2019 4:24 PM

SANTA MONICA, Calif. – The City of Santa Monica today filed its opening appellate brief in Pico Neighborhood Association & Maria Loya v. City of Santa Monica, a case in which the plaintiffs challenge the City’s at-large election system for its City Council. The trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs after a bench trial. The City filed its appeal to challenge what it believes to be a trial court judgment without support in law or fact.

Santa Monica’s current election system was adopted by the voters in 1946 with the support of prominent local civil rights leaders. The current electoral system expanded minority voting strength over the prior system, increasing the City’s governing body from three commissioners to seven councilmembers, removing designated posts, and allowing voters to cast ballots for more candidates, more often.  In the last quarter century of elections, under the at-large election system, Latino voters’ preferred candidates have usually won City Council seats, even though Latinos make up 13.6% of the City’s voting population. 

The City’s brief argues that the trial court’s judgment, if upheld, would contradict the purpose of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) by reducing minority voting strength and would undemocratically invalidate the election system chosen by Santa Monica’s voters without legal basis. 

According to reporting in the Los Angeles Times and Southern California Public Radio, available data also shows that a majority of cities that have switched to districts in response to CVRA litigation demands have not seen any increase in minority representation.  

Ted Boutrous of Gibson Dunn, the City’s appellate counsel, said “We are looking forward to the Court of Appeal taking a fresh look at this case. The trial court improperly rubber-stamped the plaintiffs’ misguided and unsupported view of the law, ignored the history of Santa Monica’s election system and the success of minority-preferred candidates in that system, deprived the electorate of any public process for the districts drawn, and violated the federal and California Constitutions. And as explained in the City’s appellate brief, the trial court’s decision and remedy will actually dilute Latino voting strength—which is precisely the result that the CVRA and other voting rights legislation were enacted to avoid.”

The City’s brief argues:

  1. The trial court applied legally incorrect standards in determining the existence of racially polarized voting. In identifying Latino voters’ preferred candidates, the court focused on the ethnicity of candidates, rather than the preferences of Latino voters; it also ignored that Latino-preferred candidates usually win. 
  1. The trial court misapplied the legal standard for determining whether Latino votes have been diluted.
  1. The trial court’s erroneous analysis threatens to render the CVRA unconstitutional as applied because it depends on the impermissible stereotype that Latino voters prefer only Latino-surnamed candidates; would require the imposition of a race-conscious “remedy” without improving Latino voters’ chances of electing candidates of their choice; and would usurp the City’s state constitutional right of self-governance by ordering it to abandon its chosen election system without legal cause. 
  1. The trial court committed legal errors when it concluded without a factual basis that the City intentionally discriminated against minority voters in 1946, when the current electoral system was proposed and adopted, and again in 1992, when the City Council studied alternative systems and decided not to put a potential switch on the ballot.  It was undisputed at trial that neither the Freeholders proposing the 1946 electoral change, nor the Councilmembers in 1992, harbored any discriminatory animus toward minorities; to the contrary, the Freeholders and Councilmembers both expressed a desire to expand minorities’ electoral opportunities.  
  1. The trial court’s chosen remedy—compelling the City to conduct elections using a seven-district map drawn by respondents’ expert—violates section 10010 of the Elections Code, which requires a democratic process, including public hearings, on districting before any “court-imposed change from an at-large method of election to a district-based election” takes effect.  No such hearings have taken place in Santa Monica—a result inconsistent with the democratic process called for by the statute.  Residents have been deprived of their opportunity to provide input into the new electoral system.

The City’s brief is available here. The Court of Appeal is expected to issue a decision on or before July 10, 2020.

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 has since been affirmed twice (1975 and 2002) by voters at the polls.  With this at-large system in place, Santa Monica has a history of electing people of color, including Latinos, 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 member since 2012, and Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian-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, Latinos, 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 voters won the majority of the time in Santa Monica city council races and the majority of at-large elections for the SMMUSD, SMC, and Rent Control Boards that the plaintiffs claimed involved “racially polarized” voting.

The City contends that evidence presented at trial did not support the plaintiffs’ claims that a move to districts would generate better outcomes for Latino 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 two-thirds of Latino residents live outside of the plaintiffs’ proposed Pico district.  In a seven-district system, these Latino 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, the 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.  

The City contends in its brief that 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 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.

The City filed its notice of appeal on February 22, 2019.

On March 19, 2019, the California Court of Appeal granted the City’s petition for writ of supersedeas and confirmed that the trial court’s order is stayed and will not take effect pending review by the Court of Appeal.

On June 3, 2019, the plaintiffs filed a motion asking the trial court to award them over $21 million in attorneys’ fees and nearly $1 million in costs as prevailing parties.  The trial court is scheduled to hear those motions in September 2020, after the Court decides this appeal.

The Court of Appeal has granted calendar preference to the case, such that a decision will be issued on or before July 10, 2020.

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