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Panel Rejects Delay of Primaries

Court: Judges cite need for regular elections in turning down Latino group's request in redistricting suit.


A panel of federal judges in Los Angeles has refused to postpone March primary elections in several congressional districts as requested in a lawsuit challenging the state's recently enacted redistricting plan, officials said Tuesday.

The three-judge panel said a temporary restraining order sought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund was denied because the nonprofit group's arguments did not overcome the public need for regular, undisrupted elections.

"The strong public interest in having elections go forward generally weighs heavily against an injunction that would postpone an upcoming election," U.S. District Judges Margaret M. Morrow and Christina A. Snyder and Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in a decision dated Monday.

According to a lawsuit MALDEF filed last month, 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).

In addition, Berman's district was extended south into predominantly white areas of the Hollywood Hills and Sherman's district was moved north and wrapped around Berman's, to include many Latinos living in Sylmar and other areas.

MALDEF contends that the Legislature should have created a Latino district from the population now divided between Berman and Sherman.

During arguments before the judges last week, a MALDEF lawyer said the districts were reconfigured solely to spare Berman from having to face a Latino opponent in the March primary. Under the new reapportionment plan, which is valid for 10 years, Latino voter representation in Berman's district drops from 45% to 31%, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also challenges the shifting of Latino voters between the districts represented by Reps. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) and Susan A. Davis (D-San Diego). And it challenges the redrawing of boundaries to protect the seat held by state Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach).

Lawyers for Gov. Gray Davis and the state Senate told the judges last week that any delay in the March primary elections would create havoc, confuse voters and waste millions of taxpayer dollars.

Jonathan Steinberg, the Senate's lawyer, said Tuesday that the redistricting plan is fair.

Despite their decision, the judges said MALDEF's arguments presented "serious questions to make the case a fair ground for litigation."

"Plaintiffs' allegations raise challenging and perhaps unique issues regarding the application of voting rights laws in a region with a population that is both rapidly changing and multiethnic," the judges wrote.

MALDEF representatives said they would pursue another hearing to prove the voting power of Latinos is being diluted.

"MALDEF is confident that we can demonstrate that the current districts will effectively suppress the political voice of thousands of Latinos for the next 10 years," said Antonia Hernandez, the group's president and general counsel.

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