The California Appeals Court has shot down the City of Santa Clara’s appeal of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit the City lost in 2018. In a unanimous decision, Judges Eugene Premo, Allison M. Danner and Franklin Elia upheld the Superior Court findings. The appeals court heard the case on Dec. 17. [cvra appeal opinion 12-30-2020]
“The judgment of liability under the California Voting Rights Act is affirmed,” said the announcement published Wednesday. “The award of attorney fees and costs to plaintiffs is also affirmed. Plaintiffs are entitled to their costs on appeal.”
Over nearly four years of litigation in both the trial and appeals courts, Santa Clara City Attorney Brian Doyle repeatedly expressed confidence in the City’s case — shared by Mayor Lisa Gillmor — and recently used several procedural objections to postpone discussion of a settlement.
In 2018, the County Superior Court ruled that Santa Clara’s former at-large by-seat City Council election system violated voting rights laws by diluting minority votes. Judge Thomas Kuhnle awarded the plaintiffs in the case over $3 million in legal costs and ordered the City to replace its at-large City Council election system with six single-member districts.
“We’ve come a long way since 2011 when we first tried to get the City to change our election system,” said longtime Santa Clara resident Wes Mokuyama, who was a plaintiff in the case. “We defeated a discriminatory system. I’m very happy the court upheld voter equality in Santa Clara.”
Santa Clara was asking a lot from the appeals court. It was inviting the court to upend decades of established precedent in California and federal voting rights law. The court’s answer to this invitation was a clear ‘no’ on every one of the City’s arguments.
The City’s argument turned on the statistical definition of “usually;” whether polarized voting — where minority voters are prevented from electing candidates of their choice — had to be proved in 51 percent of elections, instead of 50 percent, and whether the confidence in that number must be 95 percent instead of 80 percent.
The judges found that federal and state voting rights laws and nearly half a century of voting rights litigation didn’t mandate a “bright-line” minimum frequency to find polarized voting.
“The legal standard requires a consideration of local circumstances and weighing of factors, not just a simplistic arithmetic exercise,” Judge Premo wrote. And in considering the confidence level, he wrote, “we are unaware of federal case authority that prescribes a bright-line rule tying legal sufficiency of cohesion to a mathematical formula or statistical method.”
The City also argued that the trial court remedy of six single-member election districts violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause (14th Amendment) because the Judge failed to use the correct “usually” definition in his decision, going so far as to note that the City’s “usually” argument “do not assist its case.”
The question of whether the CVRA violates the 14th Amendment was first considered and decided in the 2006 Sanchez v Modesto CVRA lawsuit. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case and, in May, declined a second invitation to review the CVRA.
“The City suggests no case authority or reasoned argument that would lead us to depart from the thoroughly supported ruling in Sanchez… The City fails to point this court to even a single example from the record that would show the trial court’s selection of a district-based remedy made race ‘the predominant factor motivating the . . . [redistricting] decision.'”
Finally, the three-judge panel didn’t buy the City’s argument that the CVRA violates charter cities’ rights to control their own elections, specified in the California constitution.
This argument has also been considered and rejected by the appeals court in the 2014 CVRA case Jauregui v Palmdale. That court ruled that city election ordinances can be preempted by state law in matters of statewide concern, like voting rights.
“We decline the invitation to depart from the Jauregui court’s reasoning and holding,” wrote Judge Premo.
“The election of Raj Chahal in 2018, Kevin Park, Suds Jain, and Anthony Becker in 2020, under the trial court’s remedial maps, dramatically illustrates how the elimination of at-large elections can bring down structural barriers to the election of qualified minority-preferred candidates,” said civil rights attorney Robert Rubin in a press release.
Rubin first warned Santa Clara that its election system violated the CVRA and was part of the plaintiffs’ legal team.
“The long history of discrimination against Asian Americans on a national, state and local level exacerbates structural barriers to their political participation, like the at-large election system in Santa Clara,” said the Asian Law Alliance’s Richard Konda.
“The CVRA’s protections are crucial to ensure that Asian Americans and all other groups have an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice and meaningfully participate in California’s political process in their local governments.”
In addition to the previous $3.2 million award, Santa Clara will also be on the hook for two years of interest on that amount, as well as the plaintiffs’ additional legal fees for the appeal. The City has already spent about $800,000 on its own attorneys, none of which have a voting rights practice or CVRA litigation experience.
To date, the most costly CVRA lawsuit was Palmdale, which paid a $4.5 million judgment and an estimated $1.5 million in its own legal bills. It’s likely that Santa Clara’s costs will challenge that record.
The California Voting Rights Act was enacted in 2002. Unlike the federal Voting Rights Act, the CVRA does not require plaintiffs to demonstrate a specific geographic district where a minority is concentrated enough to establish a majority.
“The City of Santa Clara is in receipt of the Court of Appeal’s decision and is in the process of reviewing it,” said City Communications Director Lon Peterson. “The Santa Clara City Council will convene in a closed-session meeting in January to review the Court’s decision. Until then, the City has no further comment.”