Santa Monica’s At-Large Election System Affirmed in Court of Appeal Decision
July 9, 2020 1:45 PM
Today, in a landmark ruling, the California Court of Appeal, 2nd District, overturned the trial court decision in Pico Neighborhood Association & Maria Loya v. City of Santa Monica and ordered that judgment be entered for the City, stating: “The City did not violate the California Voting Rights Act or the California Constitution. We do not reach the remedies issue because there was no wrong to remedy.”
Plaintiffs challenged the City’s at-large election system for its City Council and argued that it violated both the California Voting Rights Act and the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. The Court of Appeal rejected both arguments. It held that there was no violation of the CVRA because plaintiffs “failed to prove the City’s at-large system diluted the votes of Latinos.” The Court also held there was no equal protection violation because plaintiffs “did not prove the City adopted or maintained its system for the purpose of discriminating against minorities.” Santa Monica’s election system, which was adopted and has been twice validated by Santa Monica voters, has repeatedly elected candidates preferred by Latino voters.
“We are very pleased with the Court of Appeal’s decision. The opinion correctly finds that Santa Monica’s at-large election system has not diluted Latino voting power and so complies with the California Voting Rights Act,” said Ted Boutrous, outside counsel representing the City in the case. “The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ false narrative that the City had intentionally discriminated against minority voters in enacting and maintaining its current election system—which is exactly the opposite of what the record showed at trial.”
The Court of Appeal held that the trial court committed several significant legal errors in striking down the City’s at-large election system. The Court of Appeal held that vote dilution is a required element of a CVRA violation and that plaintiffs had “offered no valid proof of [vote] dilution” because they had failed to demonstrate that their proposed district-based alternative to the City’s at-large election system would lead to significantly better electoral results for Latino voters. The Court of Appeal also rejected the trial court’s finding of an equal protection violation. The Court of Appeal held that the trial court applied the wrong legal standard, and that the “contemporaneous and unanimous support” of community leaders of color for the City’s at-large election system when it was adopted in 1946 and the Council’s “substantive and cogent discussion of the pluses and minuses of district voting” when the system was reviewed in 1992 demonstrated that there was no intent to discriminate.
Over the four-year legal proceedings, the City of Santa Monica has defended its at-large system because the facts show that moving to districts would not enhance and indeed would diminish the voting power of Latinos and other communities of color throughout the city. As a result of the Court of Appeal’s decision, Santa Monican residents will cast votes for all seven Council members who represent them and each Council member will continue to be accountable to each resident. Voters will continue to elect their representatives every two years for four-year terms.
“The court has preserved the right of every Santa Monican to vote for all seven City Council seats, not just one,” said Mayor Kevin McKeown. "This long-awaited decision validates that we are all part of a single community, committed to inclusiveness and city-wide participation in decisions on our shared future. As always, we encourage more diverse grassroots leadership, and city-wide service on our boards and commissions as well as in elected office. We all count, so be sure to complete the 2020 Census and, if you can, register to vote.”
Based on the Court of Appeal’s decision, the plaintiffs’ lawyers, who were seeking to recover at least $22 million in attorneys’ fees and costs from the City, will recover nothing.
Once the Court of Appeal’s decision becomes final, the plaintiffs will have 10 days to decide whether to seek review from the California Supreme Court. Review by the California Supreme Court is not automatic and rather is in the Court’s discretion. Absent a decision by the California Supreme Court to review and reverse the decision of the Court of Appeal, its order that judgment be entered for the City will stand.
For more information on the timeline and background in this case, visit https://www.santamonica.gov/Election-Litigation-PNA-V-Santa-Monica.