It’s an old cliché that it isn’t what you know but who you know, that counts.
Churchwell White LLP, the Sacramento lobbying and public policy law firm representing Santa Clara in the current California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit, doesn’t have a practice specialty in redistricting or voting rights litigation. The firm has never represented any CVRA defendant that the Weekly has been able to determine.*
But attorney Steve Churchwell does have both business and political ties to a figure who’s raising questions about his many roles in Santa Clara politics and development: Democratic party politico and South Bay lobbyist and political consultant Jude Barry.
For nearly a decade Barry has been a paid advisor, consultant or strategist for many of the City’s biggest business and political projects, including: Measure J — where he worked closely with Mayor Lisa Gillmor to pass the Levi’s Stadium referendum, the International Swim Center rebuilding effort and, his current engagement, Related Companies’ $6+ billion City Place on Santa Clara’s municipal golf course.
Barry is also co-founder of five online campaign-related businesses — two of which, Voterpros and Voxloca, have sold services to Santa Clara campaigns, most recently to the Santa Clara police union’s independent expenditure (yet to be reported) for Yes on Measure A effort.
Churchwell was the treasurer for Barry’s 2006 Obama for America Draft Committee PAC, created with $30,000 of Silicon Valley tech money — at the urging of another Barry connection, eBay executive Tom Adams, according to contemporary news reports.
A few years later Churchwell was counsel for Barry’s electronic petition-signing software company, Verafirma and was part of the company’s founding team.
Churchwell’s interest wasn’t simply interpreting the law for Verafirma — the company marketed digital petition-signing technology, an evolving area of law. He was an active advocate for the company’s technology in a white paper promoting the software.
In 2010, Churchwell represented another Verafirma founder, Michael Ni, in a lawsuit against the San Mateo County Chief Elections Officer Warren Slocum when Slocum’s office rejected Ni’s ballot petition signature made using Verafirma software on an iPhone. Churchwell and Ni lost the case, both in the trial court and on appeal.
Prior to Churchwell White, Churchwell worked in DLA Piper’s Government Affairs Group in Sacramento, and was General Counsel for the California Fair Political Practices Commission from 1993 to 2000.
In June, the County Superior Court found Santa Clara in violation of the CVRA, and the case is currently in the remedy phase. The lawsuit has already cost the City about $4 million in plaintiffs’ legal bills that the City will have to pay and likely millions more to Churchwell’s firm to defend the case. (The City refuses to publish information about outside legal spending claiming it’s protected by attorney-client privilege).
The City has appealed the decision, so the legal meter will keep running for months longer.
In a June 25 brief, Churchwell wrote that Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle couldn’t, as Kuhnle summarized it, “make the City do anything” should the City fail to adopt a court-approved remedy before the November election.
Churchwell wrote in a July 6 brief that “The City’s two-district map … appears to be the best choice for 2018,” despite the fact that voters defeated the two-district idea decisively in June. “Plaintiffs have not established that multi-member districts operate to minimize or cancel out anyone’s ability to elect their preferred candidates,” he wrote.
In a similar 2012 CVRA lawsuit, a judge blocked certification of Palmdale’s 2013 election and ruled that the city had to hold a special election in 2014 for an entirely new, by-district Council.
Palmdale appealed, claiming that as a charter city it wasn’t subject to the CVRA. The appeals court ruled it was, and in December 2015 a settlement was reached wherein the 2013 Council was seated until a new Council was elected by districts in 2016.
The lawsuit cost Palmdale about $6 million, according to an estimate by the Desert Sun. Palmdale has a population of about 115,000, three-quarters of which are minorities. No public agency has ever won a CVRA lawsuit.
Santa Clara’s outside legal services are recommended by the City Attorney and approved by the City Council.
For more about Jude Barry:
Jude Barry’s New Company Running Measure A Survey
Jude Barry Lobbies through Santa Clara
Politics and Business Make an Interesting Mix at City Hall
*As of press time, the firm didn’t return a call from the Weekly.