LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Ninth Circuit on Monday heard arguments from voters who claim Los Angeles officials gerrymandered Koreatown to favor incumbent City Council President Herb Wesson.
In a July 2012 lawsuit, five Koreatown voters claimed Commissioner Chris Ellison redrew the 10th District to increase the population of black voters and decrease the white population to help Wesson, the district’s African-American incumbent.
Koreatown was split into two council districts against the wishes of its constituents, who had testified that the neighborhood should be in one district, voters said.
Ellison said he redrew electoral lines to “protect the historical African American incumbents and increase the black population in the district,” according to comments cited in the voters’ brief to the Ninth Circuit.
“Wesson later bragged in a videotaped speech that as a result ‘a minimum of two of the council peoples will be black for the next thirty years,’” the brief states.
The redistricting left the 120,000 residents of Koreatown as a “captive minority,” the voters said in their initial complaint.
They claimed the city’s 2012 redistricting ordinance and redrawing of the electoral map was racially motivated, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, sections of the City Charter and the California Constitution.
The city denied that it redrew the map to favor Wesson, saying the demographics of the 10th District had remained largely unchanged from the last time the city redrew it, in 2002.
In its answering brief to the Ninth Circuit, the city said the 10th District is “not a majority-minority African-American district under any standard,” and that the percentage of black residents in the district increased from 24.2 percent to 25.9 percent.
The city redrew the map to include all of Koreatown and 70 percent of the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council, it said in its March 2016 brief to the Ninth Circuit.
The city calls its 10th District “one of the most diverse districts in one of the most diverse cities in the country. It continues to be a multi-racial, coalition district with large populations of Latino, Asian, White, and African-American residents.”
U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall ruled for the city in February 2015.
Marshall found that the plaintiffs did not prove that the redistricting was racially motivated. Even if they could make such a showing, there was no evidence on the record that “race is the predominant or only motivating factor,” the judge ruled.
“Plaintiffs’ evidence that one commissioner expressed racial concerns and one council member praised the redistrict ordinance after it was passed cannot be imputed to prove the city’s motivation,” Marshall wrote.
During oral argument on appeal Monday at the Richard H. Chambers Courthouse in Pasadena, Circuit Judge Paul Watford asked why the residents emphasized Ellison’s and Wesson’s motives, though a majority of the council had voted to adopt the map.
“You have strong evidence as to what Mr. Ellison’s motive might have been, but I guess I’m having trouble tracing that up the chain,” Watford said.
The voters’ attorney Rex Heinke said Wesson was the incumbent in the district and handpicked Ellison to redraw the maps. They had an overriding influence on their fellow officials, he said.
“Race was the predominant reason for the drawing of the boundaries,” Heinke said. He asked the court to reverse Marshall and allow him to depose the officials involved in the process. The court ruled that the “legislative privilege” shields them from testifying.
But Watford said the plaintiffs could not “just speculate and assume” that the other members of the commission and council had acted unlawfully.
The city’s attorney Robin Johansen urged the court to affirm. She said 21 members of the commission, 15 members of the council and the mayor had vetted and approved the changes.
“They’ve never connected the dots that they say are there to show to that Mr. Ellison and Council President Wesson controlled this redistricting,” Johansen said.
The city redraws district maps every 10 years, after the census, to accommodate changes in population and demographics. It will next redraw the maps after the 2020 census.
Residents in the Eighth, Ninth and 10th Districts filed a separate lawsuit, claiming the city had moved two predominantly African-American neighborhoods out of the Eighth District and into the 10th District. They also objected to the creation of a predominantly Latino electorate in the Ninth District.
The cases were consolidated on appeal.
Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson represents the Eighth District and Councilman Curren Price the Ninth District.
The panel took the case under submission.
Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski and U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett, sitting by designation from the Northern District of Iowa, joined Watford on the panel.