California Voting Rights Act: An $8 Million Bill for Taxpayers
By Carolyn Schuk
Nearly ten years after the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) was passed into law, CVRA lawsuits and threats of lawsuits have cost California taxpayers over $8 million.
When the 2002 law was enacted, municipalities didn't recognize its implications, Fresno County schools superintendent Larry Powell told the Fresno Bee in 2009. Things changed in 2003, when Robert Rubin and Joaquin Avila of the San Francisco-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) - drafters of the law - started bringing CVRA lawsuits against all kinds of elected bodies.
Most California school districts use at-large election systems and are, thus, potential LCCR targets - a 2006 report by the Latino Issues Forum identified 158 school districts where Latinos were "under-represented." Despite California's diversity and status as a minority-majority state, the LCCR's lawsuits and threats appear to focus almost exclusively on electing Latinos to public office.
For example, the LCCR sued the Tulare Local Healthcare District even though its five-member governing board includes two Indian-Americans, one Latino, and an African-American. The claim? That Latinos - one third of the district's residents - were "shortchanged."
The LCCR also threatened Gustine Unified School District in Merced County with a CVRA lawsuit, even though the district has a large Portuguese-American population and three of the district's five trustees - a majority - are Portuguese, according to a Feb. 24, 2010 Modesto Bee report.
CVRA lawsuits have been brought against the City of Modesto, Madera Unified School District, Hanford Joint Union School District, the Tulare Local Healthcare District and the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors - all by the LCCR. And many other California elected bodies have been threatened by the LCCR (or an LCCR law firm partner) including Ceres, Gustine, Whittier and Santa Clara. In all cases, the LCCR demanded district elections replace at-large systems.
The outcomes of these lawsuits aren't encouraging for elected bodies. Indeed, the LCCR boasts of its record. "We have filed five cases under the...California Voting Rights Act, and have prevailed in each ruling," says the organization's website.
The first settled CVRA lawsuit was Gomez v. Hanford Joint Union School District, where the LCCR charged that polarized voting blocked Latinos from election to the school board. Nearly 40 percent of the district's residents were Latino, but there hadn't been a Latino school board member in two decades. Although the district chose to settle, it nonetheless had to pay the $110,000 in plaintiffs' legal fees.
In Sanchez v. The City of Modesto, the LCCR charged that Modesto's at-large system was blocking the election of Latinos, evidenced by the fact that the city had had only one Latino Council member since 1991, while the city's Latino population is more than 25 percent.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge, Roger Beauchesne, sided with the city, ruling that the CVRA was unconstitutional. On appeal, the 5th District Court of Appeals struck down Beauchesne's ruling. The city appealed, but both the California and the U.S. Supreme Courts refused to hear the case. Modesto settled, voting on a ballot measure to change to district elections, and paying $3 million in legal fees to the plaintiffs. Modesto also paid $1.7 million to its own lawyers.
In the 2008 case Rey v. Madera Unified School District, the LCCR charged that while more than 80 percent of the district's students were Latino, only one of seven at-large school board members were. The city agreed to draw district lines, rather than going to court - a district spokesman called it a "business decision."
Nonetheless, the LCCR asked the court to throw out the coming election, and the Judge ruled against the school board. This ruling officially made the district the losing party, and required it to pay $1.2 million in plaintiff's lawyer fees.
In June 2010, the Tulare Regional Medical Center agreed to pay a $500,000 settlement and to hold a referendum on changing to district elections. However, if voters oppose district elections, the LCCR has indicated it intends to file a new lawsuit.
As the only county in California that still elects its Board of Supervisors at-large, San Mateo County was a predictable target for the LCCR. Sure enough, in 2010 San Mateo received the LCCR's standard threat letter from then-LCCR Community Initiatives Director, Jane Kim. (In November, Kim was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in District 6 - which includes Hunters Point, a site that continues to be actively talked up as a location for a 49ers football stadium).
Although non-Latino whites are a minority in San Mateo County (43 percent), four of the five current supervisors are white. The fifth is an African-American appointed to a vacant seat in 1999 - something LCCR Director Rubin dismisses as indicating a "plantation mentality," according to a May 14, 2011 New York Times report.
Despite the recommendation of the county's charter review committee and a civil grand jury that San Mateo put the question of district elections to voters, the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 against the referendum.
In a demonstration of myopia likely to earn San Mateo County no points in any future legal battle, Supervisor Adrienne Tissler was emphatic in supporting the status quo. “I believe we shouldn’t change because we have the best of both worlds, we have also been very fortunate in this County that we have a reputation for being a sterling County,” she said, according to a report posted July 10, 2010 in Coastinsider.com.
Predictably, in April 2011, the LCCR filed a lawsuit against San Mateo County. The county has asked San Mateo County Superior Court to dismiss the case.
Next: Results of CVRA lawsuits - the jury is out.
Want to know more about the California Voting Rights Act? The California League of Cities (www.cacities.org) has published analysis of the CVRA.