Discrimination against Latinos in Southern California elections has shrunk to the point that they no longer require the most aggressive forms of protection under the federal Voting Rights Act, a three-judge federal district court panel ruled Wednesday.
The judges dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund challenging parts of the redistricting plan for congressional and state legislative seats adopted by the Legislature after the 2000 census.
The suit charged that district lines in the San Fernando Valley, the southern part of Los Angeles County and part of San Diego County reduced the ability of Latinos to be elected to office by creating districts that were not majority Latino.
Under the ruling, those districts will remain in place until after the next census in 2010.
"It is certainly not our view that racial discrimination no longer affects our political institutions or motivates any portion of the electorate," the judges wrote. But "whites and other non-Latinos are currently far more willing to support Latino candidates for office than in the past."
The ruling could have a long-term impact on the drawing of political boundaries across the region, giving legislatures more freedom to draw lines without the need to create districts in which Latinos are an outright majority.
If new political district maps face court challenge, the ruling could have a persuasive effect on other judges, said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF vice president of litigation.
Large numbers of Latinos now hold senior positions in the Legislature, and Latino candidates often win elections in districts with non-Latino majorities, the judges said. That evidence, they said, shows that at least in Southern California, Latinos can obtain political power without the need for carefully circumscribed districts.
Sixteen of 19 Latino members of the Assembly and all seven Latino state senators voted for the redistricting plan that was challenged in the lawsuit.
The 91-page opinion was a major defeat for the civil rights groups that challenged the redistricting plan, in part because the suit was dismissed without a trial, but also because the ruling was written by a panel that lawyers considered highly sympathetic to civil rights claims: Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Judges Christina A. Snyder and Margaret M. Morrow.
If appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case would be decided by justices who in recent years have proven far more hostile to voting rights claims by minority groups. An appeal would risk making the ruling a nationwide precedent.
The Voting Rights Act was passed in the 1960s, primarily to protect black voters who had been shut out of political power in the South. Over the years, its reach has expanded to other minority groups whose attempts to secure political power were stopped by racial-bloc voting.
The "rapidly changing multiracial and multiethnic community that is present-day Southern California" is a "fundamentally different context" than the Southern states in which the voting rights law developed, the judges said.
That ruling amounted to a fundamental change in how the Voting Rights Act is applied in the region.
A dozen years ago, for example, federal judges found that white officeholders had gerrymandered the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to make it difficult for Latinos to win election.
But "this is a very different case," the judges said, noting that "Latinos are a far more formidable political force than they were in the 1980s."
The Latino population of Los Angeles County grew 34% between the 1990 and 2000 censuses, and Latinos make up about 46% of the county population.
That ruling is a "troublesome precedent," said Saenz, because it "could permit intentional discrimination whenever a minority has reached a certain modicum of political power." MALDEF must "take into account what the Supreme Court currently looks like, and what its track record looks like on issues like this," Saenz said.
Joseph Remcho, a lawyer for state Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), said the decision acknowledges the changing nature of California politics.
"The court recognized that unlike the Southern states that gave rise to many of the voting rights statutes, California really is a state in which Latinos have had a chance to participate fully in the process," he said.
"What the court is saying is, 'Wait a minute. Latinos do have a chance to elect candidates of their choice in these districts, and they've had a full chance to participate in this process.' "
As is always the case when legislatures redraw political lines, last year's redistricting process was an intensely political exercise.
Members of the Legislature sought to protect powerful incumbents, particularly Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills), whose brother, Michael, directed the process for the Democratic majority.