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Santa Clara’s Legal Bill In Failed CVRA Lawsuit Defense Nears $1 Million, No End in Sight

Santa Clara paid another $263,190.05 in October for the services of attorney Stephen Churchwell, bringing his paycheck on the case to $843,000.

Churchwell represented the City in its losing defense against the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit filed in 2017. He continues to represent Santa Clara in its possibly ill-fated appeal — no public agency has ever won a California Voting Rights lawsuit. At an average of $56,000 a month since September 2017, Churchwell’s bill will likely top $1 million.

This is in addition to the $4 million the plaintiffs are asking for in legal fees and court costs, and a hearing is scheduled for Jan. 4, 2019 at 9 a.m. The City has two new lawyers on that part of the proceeding — Kevin Calia and John McCarron. No payments to either have appeared on the City’s payment register.

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Churchwell is a lawyer-lobbyist-political consultant who had no prior experience litigating voting rights cases when he was hired by Santa Clara. His Sacramento-based law firm, Churchwell White, doesn’t have a practice specialty in redistricting or voting rights litigation.

But despite having no experience in CVRA litigation, Churchwell is a business and political partner with Mayor Lisa Gillmor’s pal and political advisor, Related lobbyist Jude Barry.

Churchwell White’s advice to public agencies about CVRA lawsuits appears to be situational. In 2016 Churchwell’s partner Douglas White persuaded the Dixon City Council to change Dixon’s at-large elections to by-district elections via ordinance to preemptively avoid a CVRA lawsuit.

“When a city does get sued … it is difficult for it to prove that an elected body isn’t polarized,” White advised the Dixon City Council according to Vacaville newspaper, The Reporter. White shepherded Dixon through the process.

The City had a seven-year warning that its at-large election system violated voting rights laws. The case number is #17CV319862 and you can look up hearings and documents at www.scscourt.org.

Despite the City Council’s boasts of transparency, City officials claim attorney-client privilege protects them from having to disclose legal bills. However, the payments can be found by searching the Bills & Claims report attached to City Council agendas on “legal” or “special insurance” (the account used to pay legal bills).

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