Gruber: Final thoughts on the voting rights case: there’s no right without a remedy

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This is part three of a series on the recent ruling by the California Supreme Court on the Voting Rights Act filed against the city. You can read our coverage of the arguments and ruling and parts one and two of this series at the links provided in this sentence. All three parts of Gruber’s series first appeared at The Healthy City Local. – DN

To summarize my previous two posts about the California Supreme Court’s decision in the Santa Monica voting rights case, it seems that:

(i) To prove that an at-large voting system unlawfully discriminates against a protected class of voters under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), plaintiffs must prove (A) that racially polarized voting exists among both the protected class and the white majority; and (B) that the at-large system dilutes the political power of the protected class compared to what would be the case under a lawful alternative system;

(ii) If the proposed alternative is district elections, plaintiffs do not need to show that protected class voters need to be numerous enough and geographically compacted enough to be collected in a majority or near-majority district;

(iii) A proposed system would not be a reasonable alternative if it reduces the overall electoral power of all members of the protected class, regardless whether they would live within districts established to enhance the voting power of the protected class; and

(iv) Determining whether a valid CVRA claim exists entails a “searching evaluation” of the “totality of the facts and circumstances” in the jurisdiction where the case arises.

If you have read my first two posts on the case, you know that I do not believe, based on the facts and circumstances, that racially polarized voting exists in Santa Monica; and that therefore the Court of Appeal should dismiss the case. Furthermore, even if the plaintiffs can prove racially polarized voting, if the proposed remedy is district elections, then dilution cannot be proved because district elections would weaken the overall political power of Latinos in Santa Monica. If the only possible remedy is districts, then the Court of Appeal should dismiss even if it finds that there is racially polarized voting in Santa Monica.

However, what would be the case if plaintiffs can prove racially polarized voting and there are remedies other than district elections? It is under this scenario, which may or may not be the case in Santa Monica depending on whether there is a finding that racially polarized voting exists, that the court broke new ground and extended the possibilities of the CVRA.

When it comes to remedies for when an at-large system dilutes the political power of a protected class, the CVRA specifically refers to only one, district elections, but it leaves open the possibility that courts can be creative and find others. Here is the language from the statute: “[u]pon a finding of a violation [of the law] the court shall implement appropriate remedies, including the imposition of district-based elections, that are tailored to remedy the violation.”

The meat of the court’s decision revolves around the possibility of “tailoring” such remedies. In doing so, the court implicitly shows skepticism that district elections would work in many jurisdictions where majority-minority districts cannot be drawn (even as the court holds that under the CVRA it is not necessary for plaintiffs to show that majority-minority districts can be drawn). As if to counterbalance that skepticism, the court emphasizes the possibility of other remedies that counteract dilution of the protected class’s political power, but preserve at-large voting. (At least as evidenced by this article, the voting rights legal community seems to be seeing this decision by the California Supreme Court as a major milestone in voting rights jurisprudence because of its focus on alternative remedies. The case reminds me of an adage you hear constantly in law school: “there’s no right without a remedy.”)  

The court repeatedly mentions three voting systems that courts might use to remedy voter discrimination: cumulative voting (whereby voters can allocate some or all their votes to favored candidates); limited voting (whereby a voter has fewer votes than there are candidates to elect); or ranked choice voting (voters rank candidates in order of preference, and votes are added to candidates’ totals until candidates achieve majorities).

From the perspective of a potential plaintiff in a CVRA case, the court “taketh away and giveth.” On one hand, the court has made it more difficult to prove discrimination because by making dilution “comparative” it has made proving dilution more difficult, but on the other it has expanded potential remedies to give plaintiffs reasonable alternatives against which to judge an existing system. The court also took a more expansive view of political power, consistent with language in the CVRA, recognizing that the goal of CVRA litigation can be to enhance the power of protected classes through the use of alliances and coalitions even when electing members of the class is problematic, such as in jurisdictions where protected classes are small minorities or dispersed geographically.

While the court pointedly expresses no view about whether plaintiffs in Santa Monica have proven the elements of a CVRA case, and sends that determination back to the Court of Appeal, it seems as if the court is suggesting to the lower court that if it finds those essential elements, it could end the case by imposing an alternative other than district elections.

What about a settlement? This case has gone on a long time and cost the City a lot of money. I suspect that a reform like ranked choice voting would be popular among Santa Monicans. Many of us have been watching how ranked choice voting in places like Alaska has led to more moderate candidates being elected. Perhaps the City could agree to that and settle the case.

There are, however, obstacles to a settlement. One is attorneys’ fees. If the plaintiffs can win the case, proving racially polarized voting and dilution (compared to a remedy), then the City would be on the hook for what are now many millions of dollars in attorneys’ fees. The City is unlikely to agree to pay those fees if it still has a good chance of persuading the Court of Appeal to dismiss the case. There is also the question whether to settle a lawsuit the City can agree to amend its charter, something that would normally require a vote of the people.

For these reasons, I am not optimistic that the case will be settled. The next act of this drama will probably play out in the Court of Appeal.

Thanks for reading.

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