Civil rights attorney Robert Rubin sums up the Santa Clara City Council’s response to the current California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit against the City in four words: “They have done nothing.”
At the end of March, Santa Clara resident Wesley Mukoyama, represented by Rubin and the Asian Law Alliance (ALA), filed a voting rights lawsuit against the City of Santa Clara, charging that minority voters cannot influence city elections because their votes are diluted by the at-large system.
Asian Americans make up 31 percent of Santa Clara’s eligible voters. But no Asian American has ever been elected to the City Council, despite the fact that there have been Asian-American candidates in most elections since 2000.
Since Santa Clara was first alerted in 2011 to the possibility that its at-large by-seat election system made it a potential target for a CVRA lawsuit, the City Council has formed three charter review committees to look at the question, but has taken no action.
The 2012 committee recommended a change to a fully at-large system, which the Council consigned to oblivion with an indefinite continuation.
The 2016 committee decided not to even consider the election question. Last month a new charter review committee–most of whose members were on the 2016 committee–appointed to once again consider alternative methods for electing the City Council.
“One would question the sincerity of the efforts they have made, given that they spanned six years,” said Rubin. “All they’re doing is to research and discuss the issue.”
“The Council has the power to take action if its members wanted,” he said. “The Council can pass a resolution to change [the election system] and a timeframe for doing so. They could get a court order.” Action would be as simple as taking action on the 2012 recommendation to change the election system.
“The law doesn’t say you can voluntarily comply,” said Rubin. “You have to comply by changing.”
“Santa Clara has had an inordinate amount of time,” to consider election systems,” he continued. “We have had conversations with the City Attorney going back to Elizabeth Silver, Ren Nosky and now Brian Dole.”
Ruben disagreed that Santa Clara is a very ethnically integrated city, with no defined ethnic neighborhoods to form the basis of election districts. “We think we can draw ‘strong influence’ districts,” he said.
Changes to the CVRA passed last year (AB 350) allowing elected bodies to “self-correct” CVRA violations without penalty within 45 days are unlikely to have any effect on Santa Clara’s case because the City was advised of its possible CVRA violation on Oct. 13, 2016–161 days before the lawsuit was filed.
CVRA Lawsuits Cost Cities Millions
California Voting Rights Act lawsuits are always costly for cities. That’s because the defendant must pay the plaintiff’s legal bills even if the case doesn’t go to court.
Here’s a rundown of million-dollar CVRA lawsuits since the law was passed in 2001.
In the 2006 case Sanchez v. Modesto the LCCR charged that Modesto’s at-large system was blocking the election of Latinos, evidenced by the fact that the city had had only one Latino Council member since 1991, while the more than 25 percent of the city’s population was Latino.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge, Roger Beauchesne, sided with the city, ruling that the CVRA was unconstitutional. On appeal, the 5th District Court of Appeals struck down Beauchesne’s ruling.
The city appealed, but both the California and the U.S. Supreme Courts refused to hear the case. Modesto settled, voting on a ballot measure to change to district elections, and paying $3 million in legal fees to the plaintiffs. Modesto also paid $1.7 million to its own lawyers.
In the 2008 case Rey v. Madera Unified School District, the plaintiffs charged that while more than 80 percent of the district’s students were Latino, only one of seven at-large school board members were. The city agreed to draw district lines, rather than going to court–a district spokesman called it a “business decision.”
Nonetheless, the plaintiffs asked the court to throw out the coming election and the judge ruled against the school board. This ruling officially made the district the losing party, and required it to pay $1.2 million in plaintiff’s lawyer fees.
In 2014, Anaheim settled a CVRA lawsuit after two years of wrangling that cost that city an estimated $2 million. In 2015, Santa Clarita settled a CVRA lawsuit also estimated to cost taxpayers $2 million.
San Mateo County’s at-large Board of Supervisors was hit with a CVRA lawsuit in 2010 after supervisors disregarded recommendations by a charter review committee and a civil grand jury to hold referendum on district elections.
By 2012, San Mateo was putting election districts on the ballot. It’s estimated that the suit cost San Mateo $650,000 in legal fees to the plaintiffs, $100,000 to create a district election map, plus the county’s own legal bill.
The City of Palmdale settled a years-long CVRA lawsuit in 2015 for $4.5 million plus interest. The judge who ultimately found Palmdale in violation of the CVRA refused to certify the city’s 2013 council election, ordering the city to establish election districts and hold a special election.
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