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Santa Clara Had Expert Voting Rights Litigator On Contract But Trusted $600,000 Defense To Attorney With Limited CVRA Experience — And A Lucrative Municipal Law Practice

Santa Clara paid $579,978.19 to the law firm Churchwell White between September 2017 and July 2018 — an average of $58,000 a month. This was for the services of attorney Steven Churchwell, who represented the City in its losing defense against the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit that was decided earlier this year.

Churchwell is also representing Santa Clara in its appeal of the decision — likely driving Churchwell White’s total bill over $1 million, even if the appeal is heard in April, as the City has requested.

Churchwell is a lawyer-lobbyist-political consultant who appears to have no prior experience litigating voting rights cases and whose boutique law firm, Churchwell White, doesn’t have a practice specialty in redistricting or voting rights litigation, making the firm an unusual choice for a defense attorney in a high stakes lawsuit.

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What makes this choice even more surprising is that Santa Clara has what appears to be an open contract* with Marguerite Leoni, one of the country’s leading voting rights litigators and a nationally recognized authority on voting rights, election laws, redistricting, and initiative and referendum law.

City records show that Leoni’s firm, Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello, was paid $108 in April 2017 and $6,002 in September 2017.

Sources with knowledge of the details of Leoni’s engagement, who are not authorized to discuss it with the press, told the Weekly that Leoni was first consulted by the City around 2012, after Robert Rubin’s first letter advising Santa Clara that its by-seat at-large election system violated the CVRA by diluting minority votes.

 

Churchwell-White’s Municipal Law Practice

Although Churchwell White doesn’t have a CVRA litigation practice, the firm has an established practice providing contract city attorney services. The firm’s clients include Angels Camp, Atwater, Dixon, Newman, Oakdale, Patterson, Riverbank and Sonora.

Churchwell’s partner Doug White is the contracted city attorney for Dixon, where legal spending jumped 350 percent to $898,000 in 2017-2018 after hiring the law firm. Dixon’s population is 19,000, but it has the highest per capita legal costs in Solano County according to a 2018 Solano County Grand Jury report.

Atwater — a town of 29,000 — saw its legal services budget nearly double to $300,000 after hiring Churchwell White in 2017. Doug White ran up a $100,000 legal bill in two months of work, the Merced Sun Star reported last May. The outlay “’shocked’ some of the City Council members,” wrote the Sun Star, who called it ‘a bunch’ of money, but the attorney [White] contends the cost was necessary.”

Not all Churchwell White clients see the same cost increases, however. Patterson and Newman saw their legal bills drop more than 30 percent after hiring the firm.

 

Playing the Political Side

Churchwell White has been at the center of controversial issues in Dixon, and has been accused of taking sides in internal Council political battles.

In 2015 Churchwell and his partner Doug White represented the Dixon Council in a successful lawsuit against a taxpayer group asking for a referendum on sewer rate increases to build a new wastewater treatment plant.

However, a judge also ruled that the City violated privacy laws by publishing the names of those who signed the petition for the referendum as part of Churchwell White’s brief.

Churchwell White also assisted the Dixon city council majority in their unsuccessful effort to overturn the election of 22-year-old Japanese-American Dixon Council Member Devon Minnema.

Churchwell White also works directly as a political consultant. For example, the firm is currently the campaign consultant for a Dixon sales tax increase measure, according to The Reporter.

In 2013 Doug White was treasurer for Adam Gray’s State Assembly campaign committee, which was fined by the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for violating California’s campaign reporting laws by accepting donations over the state limit ($5,000) and failing to file reports on time.

Before partnering with White, Churchwell worked for the FPPC and campaign law is one of the pair’s advertised practice specialties.

Churchwell has also operated political committees with Related lobbyist Jude Barry and is a partner in one of Barry’s campaign and election technology firms, 3.

Critics also allege that Churchwell White actively recommends new legislation and legal action to clients in order to increase their billings.

In 2016 White persuaded the Dixon City Council to change Dixon’s at-large elections to by-district elections via ordinance, claiming that a change was urgently needed. Dixon is 48 percent white and 41 percent Hispanic.

Dixon hadn’t been sued or threatened with a suit. White told the Dixon Council that, “When a city does get sued … it is difficult for it to prove that an elected body isn’t polarized,” according to a May 5, 2016 news story in Vacaville newspaper, The Reporter.

In his defense of Santa Clara in the recent voting rights lawsuit White’s partner Churchwell said that there was no convincing proof that discrimination accounted for the City’s all-white Council, even though Santa Clara is 40 percent Asian, 18 percent Hispanic and 34 percent white.

Like White, former Santa Clara City Attorney Ren Nosky told his client, the City of Santa Clara, in several public meetings that the City was in immanent danger of a costly voting rights lawsuit.

Churchwell White has not returned calls asking for comment.

 

*The City won’t disclose any information about its contract with Leoni’s firm, claiming attorney-client privilege. 

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