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League of California Cities reviews Voting Rights Act lawsuits

Posted: July 29, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: July 29, 2013 2:00 a.m.

With three agencies in the Santa Clarita Valley facing California Voting Rights Act lawsuits, new attention is being paid to the wording of a law that was passed more than a decade ago.

The most recent suits — filed against the city of Santa Clarita, the Santa Clarita Community College District and the Sulphur Springs School District — are part of a fairly new trend, according to Patrick Whitnell, general counsel for the League of California Cities.

Those lawsuits allege that at-large election methods — in which voters can cast ballots for all seats up for election, not just one based on where they live — prevent minority voters from electing candidates of their choice, a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Such lawsuits have been filed periodically against entities, mostly school districts, since the law was passed in 2001, according to Whitnell. But legal action against cities did not start occurring at a pronounced rate until the resolution of a lawsuit against the city of Modesto.

“I think that opened the floodgates to these types of lawsuits,” Whitnell said.

Modesto case

Unlike the recent cases against Santa Clarita Valley agencies, which deal with specific portions of the Voting Rights Act, the Modesto case focused on the constitutionality of the act itself.

Modesto city officials argued against the 2001 law itself, saying it was unconstitutional and allowed racial discrimination.

Modesto won an initial ruling on the case, but that verdict was overturned on appeal.

Officials then appealed to the California Supreme Court and eventually the United States Supreme Court, both of which declined to hear the case.

In the end, Modesto had to shell out millions of dollars in legal fees. The city moved to district-based elections for its City Council in 2009.

Palmdale case

While the lawsuits against agencies in the Santa Clarita Valley are just beginning, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled against the city of Palmdale in a similar case last week.

Judge Mark V. Mooney wrote in his findings in the Palmdale case that intent to discriminate against a particular race or class of people does not need to be present for there to be a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

He also determined that members of a particular class do not need to be geographically concentrated for racially polarized voting to take place.

The latter finding could be particularly applicable to the Santa Clarita Valley, as officials with the agencies being sued have told The Signal that moving to district-based elections would likely not alleviate any minority-voting issues since populations of minorities are fairly spread out in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Radically polarized voting

Racially polarized voting, as defined in the Voting Rights Act, occurs when a “protected class” of voters chooses a particular candidate or candidates different from the general electorate’s choice.

Two expert witnesses in the Palmdale case studied election history in the city of Palmdale since 2000 and presented their analysis to the court.

In both cases, the judge ruled, the evidence of racially polarized voting was clear.

“The failure of minority candidates to be elected to office does not by itself establish the presence of racially polarized voting,” Mooney wrote in his judgment. “However, the regression analysis undertaken by both experts nevertheless established a clear history of a difference between the choice of candidates preferred by the protected class and the choice of the non-protected class.”

Palmdale has vowed to appeal the court’s ruling.

League role

Because Voting Rights Act lawsuits against cities are relatively new, the League of California Cities has not determined how to advise cities to lessen the chance for litigation, Whitnell said.

If Palmdale were to approach the league for some assistance, the league could file a legal brief in support of the city, Whitnell said.

He said he plans to review the Palmdale case sometime this week.


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