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California Supreme Court will Hear California Voting Rights Act Challenge to Santa Monica’s At-Large Elections System

December 11, 2020
In July, Cal Cities reported that an appellate court found no merit to a lawsuit challenging the City of Santa Monica’s at-large elections system under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). However, the plaintiffs appealed and the California Supreme Court recently agreed to review the case.
The plaintiffs claim that Santa Monica’s at-large elections dilute the voting power of Latinos in violation of the CVRA and therefore, the City should be compelled to switch to by-district elections. In support of this claim, the plaintiffs presented evidence at trial that Latinos could obtain 30 percent voting power in one district under a proposed by-district election system, as opposed to 14 percent voting power city-wide under the at-large elections system. 

The trial court was persuaded by this evidence, and ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the City to switch to by-district elections. The City appealed, arguing that the marginal increase in voting power was not enough to rise to the level of unlawful dilution under the CVRA. 

The Court of Appeal agreed with the City and reversed the trial court. The appellate court stated: “Dilution requires a showing, not of a merely marginal percentage increase in a proposed district, but evidence the change is likely to make a difference in what counts in a democracy: electoral results.” 

The plaintiffs appealed, and the California Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, in order to address the issue of what a plaintiff must prove in order to establish vote dilution under the CVRA.

Typically, when the California Supreme Court agrees to review a case, the opinion of the Court of Appeal retains its precedential value unless and until it is overruled by the California Supreme Court. Here, however, the California Supreme Court ordered the appellate court’s opinion “depublished,” meaning the opinion will no longer have any precedential effect in other lawsuits alleging violations of the CVRA. 

The timeline for when the Supreme Court will issue a decision in this case will depend on when briefing concludes and how long thereafter the Court sets oral argument. Briefing may be completed as early as March 2021 but the California Rules of Court do not impose any timeline under which the Court must set an oral argument. Once oral argument is held and the Court takes the case under submission, it has 90 days within which to issue an opinion.

Cities that have questions about the impact of this legal development should consult their city attorney.

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