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Santa Monica Voting Rights Trial Ends
By Jorge Casuso
September 11, 2018 -- After six weeks of testimony from City Council members, experts and community leaders, the voting rights lawsuit against the City of Santa Monica ended Tuesday with testimony from the defense's final witness, Councilmember Gleam Davis.
The plaintiff now have two weeks to file a closing brief, followed by 20 days for the defense (which successfully asked for an extra six days) and another ten days for the plaintiffs to submit a response.
If the two sides take the maximum time allotted, Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos will have all the documents needed by October 25 to render a ruling.
It remains unclear what impact a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs -- Latino activist Maria Loya and the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA) -- would have on the November 6 election.
A ruling by the judge handed down after the election could still impact the results, even if the City appeals, said plaintiff attorney Kevin Shenkman.
The relief in favor of the plaintiffs could include ordering that the election not be certified or invalidating the election and ordering a special election, as happened in the voting rights lawsuits against the cities of Palmdale and Highland, Shenkman said.
The judge could even go as far as "knocking out" all the council members and setting a special election, he said.
City officials issued a statement Tuesday saying they are confident the City will prevail in the case, which seeks to replace Santa Monica's at-large election system with districts.
"During the trial, the City offered compelling evidence demonstrating that its at-large election system is fair and lawful" and that Latinos in Santa Monica "have had tremendous success electing candidates of their choice to the City Council."
City officials added that "any change in the City’s method of election proposed by the plaintiffs will not increase (and in fact would likely diminish) Latinos’ ability to elect candidates of their choice."
The City concluded its case with testimony from Councilmember Davis, who testified that DNA tests show her biological father is Latino ("Santa Monica Has Two Latino Council Members, City Officials Contend," July 10, 2017).
The defense has argued that Davis and Councilmember Tony Vazquez give Santa Monica two Latinos on the seven-member council ("Latinos More than Fairly Represented on Santa Monica Council, Defense Argues in Voting Rights Case," August 6, 2018).
In the statement issued by the City Tuesday, the City’s lead trial counsel, Marcellus McRae of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, called the lawsuit "misguided."
“The City has fought this misguided lawsuit because, as the evidence presented at trial demonstrates, the City’s method of election complies fully with the California Voting Right Act and the state and federal constitutions.”
Shenkman laughed off the City's statement and questioned why the defense has failed to provide a study for the City he claims shows a pattern of polarized voting in Santa Monica ("Study Surfaces That Could Aid Plaintiffs in Voting Rights Case Against City," August 13, 2018).
During the trial, defense attorney McRae denied the existence of the study conducted by Karin MacDonald, a census expert at UC Berkeley ("Top Voting Demographics Expert Advised City, Activists on Santa Monica Redistricting," August 28, 2018).
Judge Palazuelos ruled that the report, which was commissioned shortly after the lawsuit was filed in April 2016, was a work product covered by attorney client privileges.
"If the City is so confident it is abiding by the California Voting Rights Act, the City should release the report," Shenkman said.
That way, he added, "taxpayers can see for themselves how their City officials have wasted the City's coffers fighting to preserve their own incumbencies."
City officials concluded their statement by saying, "The City is proud of its record as a progressive and inclusive community that ensures equality and fairness for all its residents, including in its electoral process."
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