Santa Clara’s cost in the voting rights lawsuit it lost in court and on appeal has now reached $5.2 million — making the City one of the biggest losers in the 20-year history of California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) litigation.*
On top of the original award of $3.2 million, the City has run up $450,000 in interest (about $600 per day).
Plus, Santa Clara has paid nearly $1.5 million to the architect of this legal strategy, Sacramento lawyer/lobbyist Steve Churchwell, according to an agenda report prepared by City Attorney Brian Doyle for the Dec. 8, 2020 Council meeting and subsequently posted on the City’s website.
Doyle claims that $700,000 of the money paid to Churchwell reduced the award the City has to pay by $1 million. However, far from accepting the City’s argument that the plaintiff’s legal fees were unreasonable, the judge found the fees reasonable and awarded 75 percent of what the plaintiffs asked.
And $5.2 million isn’t the whole story. Because the City appealed and lost, the plaintiffs in the case will be returning to court for additional legal costs of the appeal, which could run up to another million dollars.
Counsel With Political Friends in the Right Places
Steve Churchwell is a Sacramento lawyer-lobbyist-political consultant who had no prior experience litigating voting rights cases when he was hired by Santa Clara. His firm, Churchwell White, doesn’t have a practice specialty in redistricting or voting rights litigation.
But despite having no experience in CVRA litigation, Churchwell is a business and political partner with Mayor Lisa Gillmor’s political advisor, Related lobbyist Jude Barry.
Churchwell White’s advice to public agencies about CVRA lawsuits appears to be situational. In 2016 the firm advised the Dixon City Council to move to by-district elections to preemptively avoid a CVRA lawsuit.
Santa Clara would be $5 million ahead had the City taken advantage of the safe harbor provisions of the CVRA and voluntarily changed the Council election system to single-member districts, the system that was ultimately imposed by the court in 2018.
The City missed another opportunity to protect and save at least $1 million when Attorney Doyle concealed that he had received a settlement offer from the plaintiffs until it was virtually too late for the City to respond.
Reportedly, Attorney Doyle, Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Council Member Kathy Watanabe were ready to further burden taxpayers by an almost-certainly hopeless appeal to the State Supreme Court. No public agency has ever won a CVRA lawsuit in 20 years since the law passed.
City Hides Legal Bills Behind “Attorney-Client Privilege,” Obscure Account
Attorney Doyle has refused in the past to answer questions about the City’s spending on outside legal services, claiming the information is protected by attorney-client privilege.
Santa Clara also obscures legal spending in an account called “Special Liability Insurance,” whose stated purpose is insurance for “general liability, auto liability, errors and omissions, and employment practices.” Other cities, such as Sunnyvale and Mountain View, show outside legal expenses as separate budget line items.
Information about payments, however, can be found by examining Bills & Claims agenda reports individually.
*Santa Monica may beat Santa Clara, with the cost of its CVRA lawsuit speculated to top $20 million. A ruling against Santa Monica was overturned on appeal, but when the plaintiffs appealed to the California Supreme Court, the court agreed to hear the case and “depublished” — removed from the record so it can’t be used as legal precedent — the appeals court ruling.