A California appeals court Wednesday unanimously upheld a state law to make it easier to challenge at-large election systems that have diluted the potential power of minority voters.
Under the 5-year-old California Voting Rights Act, when a group of voters can demonstrate that their area is characterized by "racially polarized" voting patterns, they can demand that a jurisdiction convert from an at-large to a district electoral system.
The decision by a court in Fresno was the first appellate ruling on the 2001 law. It arose out of a case filed in Modesto two years ago. A group of frustrated Latino voters led by Enrique Sanchez attempted to establish that the city's at-large system had adulterated their voting power.
Although Modesto is 25.6% Latino, only one Latino has been elected to the five-member City Council since 1911, the plaintiffs said.
If the ruling stands, it could have broad ramifications across the state. San Francisco attorney Robert Rubin, legal director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said about 90% of people elected to city councils, boards of supervisors, school boards and special districts, such as local water boards, are chosen in at-large elections.
"We would imagine that a good many of them suffer from racially polarized voting and thereby would be vulnerable to challenge under the California Voting Rights Act," Rubin said.
Modesto officials had argued that the act was unconstitutional because it used "race" to identify polarized voting. The city's attorneys asserted that this use constituted reverse discrimination and was a form of unconstitutional affirmative action, benefiting only certain racial groups.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Roger M. Beauchesne sided with the city, concluding that the law was invalid under the equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions.
But the 5th District Court of Appeal, which covers nine counties in Central California, reversed that decision, finding that the act is "race-neutral" and "does not favor any race over others."
"The reality in California is that no racial group forms a majority. As a result, any racial group can experience the kind of vote dilution the [act] was designed to combat, including whites," Justice Rebecca A. Wiseman wrote.
"In this respect, it is similar to other long-standing statutes that create causes of action for racial discrimination, such as the federal Civil Rights Act or California's Fair Employment and Housing Act," added Wiseman, an appointee of former Gov. Pete Wilson. Justices Thomas A. Harris, an appointee of former Gov. George Deukmejian, and Dennis A. Cornell, an appointee of former Gov. Gray Davis, joined in the decision.
Rubin hailed the ruling. "This decision removes the cloud that has hung over" the act since Judge Beauchesne struck it down last year, he said.
Los Angeles attorney John E. McDermott, lead lawyer for Modesto, stated emphatically that he believed Wednesday's decision was "wrongly decided" and said he would ask the California Supreme Court to review it.
McDermott said the decision "fails to apply" numerous rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court stating that if a statute "imposes liability based on race it receives strict scrutiny and is presumptively unconstitutional."
"I pointed out to the court that the only purpose the California Legislature had when it adopted this law was racial. They wanted to provide remedies and protections to address racially polarized voting," McDermott said. But the state justices rejected Modesto's argument that the California law is unconstitutional because it was "enacted solely for racial purposes, i.e. to remedy racial bloc voting in at-large" voting systems.
"A legislature's intent to remedy a race-related harm constitutes a racially discriminatory purpose no more than its use of the word 'race' in an anti-discrimination statute renders the statute racially discriminatory," Wiseman wrote.
If the decision withstands challenge, the plaintiffs would need to go to trial and establish a racially polarized pattern of voting in order to force Modesto City Council elections by district rather than citywide.