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UPDATE: Judge rules against Palmdale in Voting Rights Act lawsuit

Antelope Valley city vows to appeal

Posted: July 25, 2013 10:44 a.m.
Updated: July 25, 2013 10:44 a.m.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has ruled against the city of Palmdale in a Voting Rights Act lawsuit alleging the city’s at-large method of electing City Council members dilutes the ability of minority residents to elect candidates of their choice.

The ruling could have a significant impact on cities or municipal agencies in California that use at-large methods for elections, in which voters choose whom to vote for from a common pool of candidates.

The city of Santa Clarita, Santa Clarita Community College District and Sulphur Springs School District have all been served with lawsuits similar to the Palmdale one in recent weeks.

The suit against Palmdale, much like the suits facing agencies in the Santa Clarita Valley, argues that a different election system, such as one that is district-based, would better suit the will of minority voters.

The California Voting Rights Act, passed in 2001 and signed by then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2002, expands the Federal Voting Rights Act in the state and makes it easier for minority groups to claim that their votes are being diluted by at-large voting systems.

In the ruling, provided by the R. Rex Parris Law Firm, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney wrote that the voting history of Palmdale, which elected just one Latino and no African-Americans to its City Council since 2000, shows there is evidence of racially polarized voting in the city.

“Consistently, the candidates of choice of Latino and African-American voters have been defeated because they fail to draw support from Palmdale’s politically cohesive white voters,” Parris said in a news release.

“The current absence of any Latinos or African-Americans on the Palmdale City Council reveals a lack of access to the political process,” he said.

Racially polarized voting, as defined by the California Voting Rights Act, occurs when there is a difference between the candidates of choice of voters of a particular race or language minority group that is designated as a “protected class” by the federal government and the voters in the rest of the electorate.

“There can be no question that the dilution of minority voting rights is a matter of statewide concern,” Mooney wrote. “Curing vote dilution is a legitimate government interest.”

Other findings
Mooney also wrote there does not need to be intent to discriminate against a particular group for there to be a violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

“Moreover, the fact that members of a particular class are not geographically concentrated may not preclude a finding of racially polarized voting,” he wrote.

Officials with the Santa Clarita Valley agencies being sued under the Voting Rights Act have told The Signal that moving to district-based elections may not alleviate any issues since populations of minorities in the Santa Clarita Valley are fairly spread out.

The law firms involved in the case against Palmdale, Shenkman and Hughes and the R. Rex Parris Law Firm, are the same that have signed on to pursue the lawsuits against Santa Clarita and the local school districts.

Kevin Shenkman, one of the partners at Shenkman and Hughes, has told The Signal he thinks the Palmdale case could set a precedent for matters pertaining to the 2001 California Voting Rights Act.

Palmdale appeal
City officials in Palmdale have vowed to appeal the decision.

“Lawyers Shenkman and Parris are using a poorly drafted statute as a pretext for a huge attorney’s-fee windfall at the expense of the taxpayers,” said Palmdale City Attorney Matthew Ditzhazy in a news release. “This lawsuit has never been about white, black or brown — only green.”

Ditzhazy also said it should be up to the residents of Palmdale to determine what election system suits them best.

“In 2001, our citizens decided that they preferred to elect the City Council at large, and we will continue to honor their wishes,” he said. “If, in the future, the citizens decide they prefer to elect the City Council in another manner, I’m sure the City Council will be happy to engage in that process.

“However, we will not cower to outsiders motivated by power and avarice.”
On Twitter @LukeMMoney



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