Those hoping that the ongoing saga in the case of Pico Neighborhood Association and Maria Loya vs the City of Santa Monica would conclude with today’s ruling by the California Supreme Court will likely be disappointed. While the court overturned the appeals court ruling that supported the city’s claim that city-wide instead of district-based city council elections were the most equitable choice for the city, it also remanded the case back to the appeals court to rule on whether or not the current city-wide elections dilute minority voters power.
The ruling states:
Because the Court of Appeal did not evaluate the dilution element of the CVRA under this standard, we reverse the judgment and remand the matter to the Court of Appeal for it to reconsider in the first instance the CVRA claim presented here.
The City of Santa Monica has released a short statement, “The City is reviewing the Supreme Court’s opinion and working to assess the path forward.”
Santa Monica City Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, the husband of Maria Loya and a longtime leader of the Pico Neighborhood Association has seen enough and declared the ruling a victory for the plaintiffs and minority voting rights.
“The California Supreme Courts reversal of the appellate court’s misguided decision means that minority voting rights will be protected throughout California. No municipality in the State of California has ever won against a legitimate CVRA claim and history will show that it was a waste of tax payers dollars for the City Council to pursue this ego driven legal adventure,” de la Torre writes. “Some “progressives” put retaining power over principles and voters will not forget.”
The plaintiff, Loya, also released a statement declaring victory and lamenting that the case continues forward.
“Today the CA Supreme Court vindicated our position to protect minority voting rights throughout the State of CA,” she writes. “Sadly, former SM Council members and our current Mayor Gleam Davis voted continuously to waste taxpayer’s dollars on expensive lawyers to protect their power & privilege.”
The California Voting Rights Act (CVRA mentioned above) requires that the electoral systems for California municipalities allow for minority voting populations to have the ability to win or influence elections. After a series of recent defeats for Latino candidates, including Maria Loya and her husband Oscar de la Torre, the Pico Neighborhood Association brought suit arguing that the city of Santa Monica’s city-wide election system discriminates against Latino voters on the city council.
When the case was filed in 2016, only one of the seven members of the council was Latino. Roughly one in six of Santa Monica residents are Latino.
In 2017, the plaintiffs won at the Los Angeles Superior Court. The Court ruled both that the current city-wide electoral system diluted the power of Latino voters to exercise power and that the city needed to create a district-based system that would be fairer to its minority populations.
The city appealed to the state appeals court. In 2020 the appeals court ruled that given the demographics of Santa Monica, it is not possible to create a district that would be majority Latino thus forcing the city to change its voting system would not necessarily be more fair to Latino voters. Instead of ruling on the specifics of the case, the Supreme Court clarified the definition of “dilution” as the CVRA doesn’t mention the ability to elect a candidate of a certain race, but discusses how elections should not be created in a way that dilutes the influence of minority voting power. From the ruling:
Accordingly, what is required to establish “dilution” of a protected class’s “ability . . . to elect candidates of its choice” (Elec. Code, § 14027) is proof that, under some lawful alternative electoral system, the protected class would have the potential, on its own or with the help of crossover voters, to elect its preferred candidate. The lawful alternative electoral system may include, but is not limited to, single-member district elections.
Now the appeals court has been tasked with re-evaluating their initial ruling with this definition as their guide post. There are a few possible outcomes.
The first is that the two parties come to an agreement outside of the court. Further litigation could drag on for two more years before the Court of Appeals issues a ruling that could be appealed back to the State Supreme Court. Given the city’s budget crunch, it may be willing to consider a compromise.
The second is that the case goes back to the appeals court and the city wins. During oral arguments, Theodore Boutrous, the attorney for the city, went through Santa Monica’s electoral history and the many wins for Latino candidates. In 2016, Gleam Davis was the only Latino member of the City Council. Today, there are four Latino members of the Council: Davis, de la Torre, Christine Parra and Lana Negrete.
Of course, the plaintiffs could succeed at the appeals level; however it is unlikely that the appeals court would require district-based elections after already stating they would not improve outcomes or influence of Latino candidates. The court could mandate another remedy such as ranked choice voting.
“This morning, the California Supreme Court found that, the concept of “vote dilution” in the context of the California Votings Right Act needs review and thus remanded the case to the Court of Appeal to determine whether the plaintiffs demonstrated the existence of racially polarized voting,” wrote Councilmember Caroline Torosis before concluding, “However, the Court also strongly urged the parties to consider remedies beyond district elections, including cumulative voting and ranked choice voting. The City’s legal team is still analyzing the ruling to inform any next steps.”
For more coverage of the ruling, you can read, “Supreme Court Reverses Voting Rights Ruling in Favor of City” in the Lookout, “California Supreme Court Reverses Opinion of Court of Appeal in Redistricting Case” in the Observer, or “California Supreme Court overturns voting rights ruling and returns case back to Court of Appeals” in the Daily Press.
Story first published at 10:30 a.m. on August 24.
Updated at 12:05 to include analysis and quote from city
Updated at 12:55 to include quote from Loya
Updated at 1:45 to include links to other media and quote from de la Torre
Updated at 2:59 to include quote from Torosis, non quote from Brock