California Voting Rights Act: $14 Million Legal Bill for Taxpayers
The California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) is a bogeyman that strikes fear into the hearts of suburban City Councils in California, many of which use at-large elections for electing city councils, school boards and other public bodies. Last October, the bogeyman was raised as an urgent reason for Santa Clara to replace its at-large by-seat system of electing the City Council to a district-based system.
That fear isn’t necessarily a result of any endemic injustice. It’s a result of the relentless pursuit of these cases by lawyers who specialize in these easy-to-win and highly lucrative cases, “at-large” is now practically a synonym for “vote dilution.”
It didn’t used to be that way. From the 19th century through the 21st century. California, municipal at-large elections were considered the progressive alternative to the Northeast’s pervasively corrupt ward systems. Until 1955, at-large elections were mandatory for California’s general law cities and few charter cities had district elections.
But that changed in 2001, when State Senator Richard Polanco introduced the CVRA to the California’s legislature and signed into law by Governor Gray Davis in 2002.
Although its intent was to remedy the potential of at-large elections to dilute the influence of minority voters, regardless of intention, the CVRA’s primary beneficiary isn’t voters. It’s lawyers. The law made it easier to bring voting rights lawsuits, shielded attorneys from liability even if cases are dismissed, and made public agencies liable for attorneys’ fees even if the agencies don’t contest the lawsuits.
Under the federal Voting Rights Act, plaintiffs have to prove an election system dilutes minority voters’ strength, including whether the minority group is big enough and geographically compact enough to constitute an election district majority. But California’s law eliminated the geographic concentration requirement and prohibits at-large election if merely it in some way “impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice. The CVRA prescribes district elections systems – regardless of any consideration of ho, the political systems of high-density big cities with distinct ‘neighborhood’ geography, would fit California’s low-density, homogeneous suburban cities.
“Protected classes” are defined in federal law as characteristics that may not be used as a basis of discrimination: religion, language, national origin, sex, disability, age, and familial status and veteran status. Common protected classes are women, minority religions, people over 40, veterans, African-Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and people with disabilities.
Two Lawyers Who Wrote Their Own Ticket to Millions
Unsurprisingly, California’s law was the brainchild of two activist lawyers, Seattle law professor Joaquin Avila and Robert Rubin, former legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) of the San Francisco Bay Area. Since most California cities, school boards, and other public bodies were elected at-large prior to 2002, the new law opened a lucrative new field for lawyers: CVRA lawsuits that have cost taxpayers $13.9 million according to list complied by the Antelope Valley Times.
In his CV Joaquin Avila describes the CVRA as his “most significant accomplishment.” In addition to his extensive legal practice and teaching, Avila also directs “student research to document discrimination against Latinas/os in the State of Washington.” Unsurprisingly, Avila aims to change federal law “to prevent the award of costs to prevailing party defendants in civil rights suits that are meritorious yet unsuccessful.”
Since the CVRA was passed, Rubin’s LCCR and attorneys working with him have collected over $4 million in fees. Another firm has gotten into the business of CVRA lawsuits, Malibu-based Shenkman & Hughes; which has earned over $5 million from CVRA lawsuits against Sulpher Springs School District and the City of Glendale alone, according to reports from the Santa Clarita Valley News and the Glendale Coalition for Better Government.
Lawsuits Undermine Claims that CVRA is About Representative Government
Despite California’s diversity and status as a minority-majority state, the LCCR’s lawsuits and threats appear to focus almost exclusively on electing Latinos to public office. One exception is a 2015 CVRA lawsuit filed by Asian-Americans against the City of Fullerton.
For example, the LCCR sued the Tulare Local Healthcare District even though its five-member governing board includes two Indian-Americans, one Latino, and an African-American. The claim? That Latinos – one third of the district’s residents – were “shortchanged.”
The LCCR also threatened Gustine Unified School District in Merced County with a CVRA lawsuit, even though the district has a large Portuguese-American population and three of the district’s five trustees – a majority – are Portuguese, according to a Feb. 24, 2010 Modesto Bee report.
In Palmdale, a Shenkman-brought CVRA lawsuit blocked the seating of the city’s first African-American Council Member, and slapped Palmdale with a $3.5 million legal bill – all for not changing to district elections.
Shenkman’s legal team included the colorful Lancaster mayor and personal injury lawyer R. Rex Parris. Lancaster has at-large elections, which Parris defended when challenged by the Los Angeles Daily News, saying that, “In Lancaster, we have a history of minorities getting elected to the City Council.”
CVRA Attorney is Mayor of At-Large Elections City, Called Black Opponent a Gang Candidate
Parris’ history makes his new-found passion for the rights of protected classes questionable. In 2010, a Parris campaign letter told voters that his black election opponent, Jonathan Ervin, would make Lancaster “a magnet for gangs and Section 8 housing,” and urged voters “don’t let street gangs get a hold at City Hall.” Ervin posted it on his Facebook page. Ervin is an aerospace engineer, Iraq war veteran, and Air Force Reserves Master Sargent.
Parris was also party to a campaign to discourage blacks from living in Lancaster and Palmdale in the early 2000s, when the cities, with the help of the Housing Authority of Los Angeles, began spending “significant resources” to pay for investigators and sheriff’s deputies for the sole purpose of aggressively monitoring families in the Section 8 voucher program,, according to the Justice Dept. complaint. This included systematic unconstitutional stops, searches and seizures, using excessive force against black and Hispanic residents, and posses of deputies – sometimes with guns drawn – showing up for random ‘compliance inspections.’
Parris has described Section 8 housing as “monster,” reported the Times, and has said he believes that blacks receive an “unfair” percentage of Section 8 program vouchers, and that Lancaster should be “waging a war” against the housing program.
Light at the End of the CVRA Tunnel?
If the goal is more representative election outcomes, then ranked choice and cumulative voting – where voters get three votes and can cast them all for one candidate if they want – could offer a better-fitting solutions homogeneous cities like Santa Clara, which is 37 percent Asian, 36 percent white, and 19 percent Latino, all equally distributed across the City. . (“Korean Town” on El Camino is a concentration of Korean businesses, not Korean-American residents.)
But in Santa Clarita – which is 70 percent white and 29 percent Latino – a cumulative voting system was blocked when Secretary of State Alex Padilla said that there was no definition of a cumulative voting system in state law that would allow the Secretary of State to certify it.
A year ago Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill written by Alex Padilla that would have allowed CVRA lawsuits against cities with by-district elections on the grounds that the districts were gerrymandered to dilute minority votes. Racially-motivated gerrymandering is already prohibited by federal law. So Padilla’s bill would have effectively declared open season on any city.
The bill also made it more difficult for cities that had lost CVRA lawsuits – ‘a history of racial discrimination’ – to change voting rules without Justice Dept. or federal court approval.