On the face of it, the case of Pico Neighborhood Association and Maria Loya vs the City of Santa Monica seems like an open and shut case. The plaintiffs are arguing that by having city-wide elections instead of district based ones, the city is disenfranchising Latino voters who make up 14% of the city’s voting population.
The current city council has four members of the seven person council with Latino heritage including the husband of Loya, Oscar de la Torre.
On Tuesday, the California Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case after the plaintiffs won at the Los Angeles Superior Court (in 2017) and lost in the appeals court (2020). Ironically, de la Torre was elected to the Council shortly after the appeals court ruling three years ago.
Speaking for the plaintiffs on Tuesday, Attorney Sam Shenkman tried to both make the case that Santa Monica has a history of underperforming Latino candidates and that the current makeup of the Council should not matter as the courts had already decided that Santa Monica’s current electoral system discriminates against Latino voters.
The California Voting Rights Act requires that the electoral systems for California municipalities allow for minority voting populations to have the ability to win or influence elections. After Theodore Boutrous, the attorney for the city, went through Santa Monica’s electoral history and the many wins for Latino candidates; most of the questions from the Supreme Court justices didn’t focus on Santa Monica but on the question of what does and doesn’t constitute “influence.”
Several justices questioned either the air or the attorneys directly asking them for advice on what defines “influence” in an election and how courts can decide whether a minority group has them. The justices made clear they were looking to not just rule on the specifics of the case in Santa Monica, but also to provide guidance for other cities and courtrooms that might grapple with this issue.
For his part, Shenkman argued that the over-two-decades-old Voters Rights Act leaves room for interpretation intentionally; that the standard for influence in Palmdale would be different than the one for Santa Monica. By not prescribing something quantifiable, like say districts that have a majority or plurality of minority voters, it allows minority voters throughout the state to bring suit in different ways for different issues.
Boutrous took an alternate view. He argued that Shenkman and the plaintiffs aren’t seeking a specific outcome because they don’t actually know what they want because the system works in Santa Monica as demonstrated by the current makeup of the Council and the historical success that Latino candidates have had in Santa Monica.
The Supreme Court is expected to make a final decision in the next couple of months. Because this case concerns state law, there cannot be an appeal to the United States Supreme Court.