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City Files Reply Brief in Election Litigation Appeal

January 22, 2020 4:08 PM

City Files Reply Brief in Election Litigation Appeal

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — The City of Santa Monica filed its reply brief yesterday in Pico Neighborhood Association & Maria Loya v. City of Santa Monica, a case that challenges the City’s at-large system for electing the City Council, which was adopted by the voters as part of the Charter in 1946. The trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs after a bench trial. The City has appealed the trial court’s ruling, arguing that its judgment lacks support in the law and the facts of the case. 

The City’s reply brief demonstrates that none of the alternative electoral systems proposed by the plaintiffs would enhance Latino voting strength in Santa Monica, where Latino voters comprise 13.6% of the voting age population. Further, the City’s brief provides an election-by-election analysis to show that, when analyzed objectively, those elections demonstrate that Latino-preferred candidates almost always win in Santa Monica under the current at-large election system. Replacing the at-large system chosen by the voters with the seven-district map drawn by the plaintiff’s expert without public input not only would be anti-democratic and unconstitutional, it would not lead to better outcomes for Latino voters, who consistently prevail in the current at-large system.  

The City’s appeal asks the Court of Appeal to reverse the trial court’s judgment and enter judgment for the City. In the alternative, the City asks the Court of Appeal to reverse the judgment and remand for further consideration by the trial court under proper legal principles, including that if any remedy is to be imposed, it must comply with the California Elections Code and allow public notice and hearings in the drawing of districts. 

The City’s opening brief is available here and the reply brief here. The Court is expected to issue a decision on or before July 10, 2020, and to schedule oral argument before that date.

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 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.

The City filed its opening brief on October 18, 2019, setting forth the reasons that the judgment is incorrect as a matter of law, including that undisputed 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.  Both the plaintiffs’ responsive brief and the City’s reply brief, along with all related court documents are available on the City’s website

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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