The exclusive Jonathan Club failed in court Monday to sidestep a California Coastal Commission condition that it give all members of the public equal opportunity of access in return for a permit to expand its facilities on public beachfront property in Santa Monica.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Norman R. Dowds ruled that the club failed to show that the commission exceeded its jurisdiction in requiring adoption of a nondiscriminatory admission policy before it can expand the beach facility onto state-owned land.
Dowds said that in his view the commission was "reasonable" in imposing the condition and rejected the club's argument that the commission had violated its constitutional rights by requiring it to admit members without regard to race, sex or religion.
At one point, John Shiner, an attorney representing the club, told the court that there seemed to be "an assumption that we have an organization that discriminates. There is no evidence of that (before the court)."
Dowds responded, "Clubs are by nature discriminatory. They offer things to members that they do not offer to others. So the question would be whether it is a prohibited (form of) discrimination."
The judge agreed with Shiner, however, that there was no evidence of discrimination before the court in the case.
The commission imposed its condition in July, citing the Coastal Act for authority, at a public hearing during which members voted 9 to 3 to approve the club's development application.
The proposal was for the club to expand its paddle tennis courts on leased public beach land and to add to its parking lot on leased state land adjacent to its present building, which stands on private property.
Commission member Marshall Grossman was prompted to say at that time: "We're saying that if you're going to take (58,000 square feet) of public trust land, you're going to have to use the facility in such a way that a Tom Bradley can be a member, that a Dianne Feinstein can be a member, or that my kid can be a member."
Bradley, mayor of Los Angeles, is black and Feinstein, the San Francisco mayor, is a woman and Jewish. Over the years, the private club has often been the target of accusations that it excludes minorities from its membership.
Shiner said then, and again in court Monday, that the club's position was that its membership policy was "totally irrelevant to these proceedings."
After Monday's decision, Shiner said he did not know if the club would decide to appeal the ruling.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Anthony Summers, appearing for the commission, argued that the agency had the legal right to impose reasonable conditions for use of publicly owned land.
"The commission can import some reasonable conditions on that use," he said. "That's not a radical step or a quantum jump in the commission's life."
Summers also said that the commission was setting itself up for lawsuits without such a condition. Those lawsuits, he said, would be brought by people who claimed they were denied access to the club because of discrimination.
"The commission's decision was based on its authority to regulate land usage within the coastal zone," said attorney Fredric Woocher of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, which entered the case as a friend of the court on behalf of the Women Lawyers Assn. of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles chapter of National Organization for Women.
"They were saying you are using state-owned land, and the Coastal Commission believed it had the authority to assure equal access to the public," Woocher said.
Betsy Rosenthal of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, which also joined the case as friend of the court, said a coalition of various ethnic and women's organizations joined to protest the admission practices of the exclusive private club last July, after the issue over the development permit came to light.
According to Rosenthal, the Jonathan Club violates the U.S. Constitution when it discriminates, since it leases state property. The league argued that failure to act would have made the commission an "accomplice."