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Judges Asked to Postpone Voting in 4 House Districts

Election: MALDEF suit contends that Latinos are shortchanged by redistricting.

November 01, 2001|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A panel of federal judges in Los Angeles heard arguments Wednesday over whether to postpone primary elections in four California congressional districts because of a lawsuit challenging the state's recently enacted redistricting plan.

The special three-judge panel promised a swift decision on a request by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund for a temporary restraining order that would block the four primaries from taking place as scheduled in March.

Lawyers for Gov. Gray Davis and the state Senate argued that any delay would create havoc, confuse voters and waste millions of taxpayer dollars.

"It would make Bush versus Gore look like child's play," said the Senate's lawyer, Jonathan Steinberg, referring to the legal chaos that followed the 2000 presidential election.

But MALDEF attorney Thomas A. Saenz argued that failure to halt the elections would cause irreparable harm to voters in the affected districts.

The first filing deadline for candidates in the March primaries is just a week away, he noted.

U.S. District Judges Margaret M. Morrow and Christina A. Snyder, joined by Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, gave no indication of how they might rule.

Two of the four congressional districts are in the San Fernando Valley which, like many other parts of California, has seen a dramatic increase in registered Latino voters.

According to MALDEF's lawsuit filed a month ago, the Legislature removed thousands of Latino voters from the district represented by Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills) and placed them in a neighboring district represented by Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks).

Berman's district was also extended southward into the Hollywood Hills, while Sherman's district was moved north and wrapped around Berman's, picking up many Latinos living in Sylmar and nearby areas.

MALDEF contends that the Legislature should have carved out a distinctly Latino district from the Latino population core now split between Berman and Sherman.

Saenz told the judges that the districts were reconfigured solely to spare Berman from having to face a Latino opponent in the March primary as he did in 1998 when he beat back a challenge by Democrat Raul Godinez II. Under the new reapportionment plan that is valid for 10 years, Latino voter representation in Berman's district drops from 45% to 31%, according to the lawsuit.

MALDEF is also challenging the shifting of Latino voters between the districts represented by Reps. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) and Susan A. Davis (D-San Diego). In that case, MALDEF argues that the Latino vote was unjustifiably diluted.

Steinberg, the state Senate's lawyer, argued Wednesday that the new congressional boundaries in San Diego gave Latino voters more influence than they would have received under a MALDEF plan.

He acknowledged that the Legislature's overall goal was to protect incumbents, but he said that does not mean the lawmakers intended to discriminate against Latinos. Sixteen of 19 Latino members in the Assembly and all seven Latino state senators voted for the plan, which was signed into law by Davis on Sept. 27.

Steinberg noted that many of those Latino legislators were elected from districts where Latinos constitute a minority. "This is California," he said, "not the Deep South of the 1960s."

Joining Steinberg in opposing a temporary restraining order was Louis Mauro, a deputy state attorney general appearing on behalf of the Davis administration.

Mauro urged the federal judges not to act pending the outcome of three related redistricting lawsuits before the California Supreme Court.

He said the U.S. Supreme Court has indicated in previous cases that states should be given preference in resolving redistricting disputes.

If either court throws out all or parts of the new redistricting plan, the Legislature will have to draft a new one. The MALDEF lawsuit also challenges the redrawing of boundaries to protect the seat held by state Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach).

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