Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) legal director Robert Rubin claims that the City of Santa Clara is violating California’s 2002 Voting Rights Act. He should know. With Seattle law professor Joaquin Avila, Rubin helped draft the statute, which was passed by the state legislature and signed into law by former Governor Gray Davis.
The law prohibits at-large election methods – such as Santa Clara’s – if it “results in the dilution or abridgment of the right of registered voters who are members of a protected class… by impairing their ability to elect candidates of their choice or to influence the outcome of an election.” Further, “intent to discriminate against a protected class…is not required to establish a violation.”
Virtually every lawsuit claiming violations of the law, has been brought or threatened by Rubin and Avila, according to a 2009 AP report. The attorney’s have garnered over $4 million in legal fees from settlements under the law. The law reduced barriers to bringing voting rights lawsuits and shields attorneys from liability even if cases are tossed out.
Since 2002, Rubin and Avila have threatened lawsuits against city councils, school boards, county boards, and regional agencies across California that have at-large – rather than district-based – elections. Hanford, Madera and Fresno county school districts, the City of Modesto, and Merced and San Mateo counties have been targeted by Rubin and Avila, who bill $700 and up per hour.
Modesto, for example, was required to pay $3 million in fees for defendants’ lawyers in a 2004 case, while in 2008 Madera School District, was hit with a $1.2 million attorneys’ bill.
At a time when municipalities and school districts are hard-pressed financially, these lawsuits may, in fact, discriminate against those they profess to help, say critics, by taking money from the very programs that aid the most disadvantaged students. For example, Madera school district “would have to slash money for books and lunches for its mostly Hispanic students,” schools superintendent John Stafford told the AP.
Some find questionable the entire notion of ethnic “discrimination” in a minority-majority state such as California. Indeed, looking at the professional makeup of Santa Clara’s City Council – two real estate agents, two lawyers, and three current or retired public employees – one might find other grounds for calling the body unrepresentative of the community, regardless of Council Members’ last names.
Carolyn Schuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.