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Opponents of Voting Rights Suit Hopeful

Elections: Attorney defending Santa Paula's system will ask new administration to halt litigation.


SANTA PAULA — Banking on the conservative trends of the new Republican administration, opponents of a federal effort to overhaul Santa Paula's citywide election system are now looking to Washington for more favorable treatment.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued Santa Paula last year, alleging that its at-large voting system has perpetuated racial discrimination by preventing Latino candidates from getting elected to the City Council.

John E. McDermott, a Los Angeles voting rights attorney hired to defend Santa Paula's system, said Thursday he and others in his firm are pushing for new meetings with Justice officials, appointed by President Bush, in hopes of ending the contentious litigation.

"They would only drop it if, in reviewing it, they came to the conclusion that it's really a case whose time has passed," said McDermott, who contends that he was stonewalled by federal officials under President Clinton's watch.

"I really do believe that's what we have here," he added. "This is not a place where you need federal intervention to change an election system that seems to be working and electing Hispanics."

However, legal experts interviewed by The Times warn that new administrations have historically been reluctant to meddle in civil rights cases already barreling down the litigation track.

Moreover, they say it would be wrong to assume that the new administration would somehow look less favorably on voting rights lawsuits, noting that former President George Bush Sr. backed aggressive enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

And they say that while a wave of political appointees currently is washing into the Department of Justice, the case most likely is being worked by career civil-service lawyers who remain in place.

"There's going to be some reluctance, absent good reason, to just pull the plug on litigation," said USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. "It might have some effect on what cases are brought in the future, but I don't think we'll see, in any major way, the termination of existing litigation."

Federal officials spent two years investigating claims that Santa Paula's at-large election system excluded minorities from political representation before filing suit against the city last year.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, alleges that the city's method for electing council members violates the Voting Rights Act of 1964 by diluting the voting strength of Latino residents.

The lawsuit seeks to force the city to adopt a new system in which Santa Paula would be divided into five voting districts. That would ensure that Latinos, who make up 66% of the population, would have a greater voice in local politics.

Many community leaders have long argued that such changes are unnecessary.

They point out that Latinos now constitute majorities on the local high school and elementary school boards. And they note that there has been at least one Latino on the City Council during the past three decades, and that voters added a second--Councilman Ray Luna--in November.

"It's obvious to me that people are making up their minds and voting for who they want to vote for," said former Santa Paula Councilman James Garfield, a lawsuit opponent who lost a reelection bid in November.

"I think the Bush administration should check into the Civil Rights Division and find out what's going on," he said. "Because I really do think this lawsuit is baseless."

Some Doubt U.S. Will Change Stance

Latino advocates don't see much chance of that happening.

David Rodriguez, district director for the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said members of the organization's national board already have contacted Bush administration officials to ensure the case doesn't fall through the cracks.

"I know there are people running around saying, 'Just wait until Bush gets his people in, the lawsuit will go away,' " Rodriguez said. "Well, that's just not going to happen. If anything, it may move forward with even more vigor."

Councilman John Proctor, who also was elected in November, said there has been speculation about how the new administration would deal with the voting rights lawsuit.

He said federal officials may have uncovered evidence to support many of the allegations in the lawsuit, but he isn't convinced district-based elections are the appropriate remedy.

"I would like to come to the table with the Department of Justice and talk about some kind of settlement," he said. "It's extremely costly to continue this fight, and it just seems to me we've come to a place where we should try to consider different options."

The City Council budgeted $350,000 through June 30 to fight the lawsuit, and McDermott said he expects he will spend close to that amount.

The case is in the discovery phase, and a trial would take place in the fall at the earliest.

Stanford Law School professor Pam Karlan said if the Justice Department is going to back away from the case, she believes it won't happen until after the discovery phase. But she believe that is a longshot. "I just wouldn't expect them to pull a complete about face," said Karlan, a former NAACP attorney who handled numerous voting rights lawsuits across the South.

All McDermott wants is a chance to make his case to the Department of Justice, to tell the department about the rise in recent years in voter registration, participation and representation among Latinos in the former oil-and-farm town.

"I really do believe this case should not exist," he said. "There are other places that need their time and attention far more than this community."

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