PASADENA, Calif. (CN) – Los Angeles residents did not adequately show race was the main factor in the last round of redistricting or that the districts were redrawn to benefit the LA City Council’s current president, a Ninth Circuit panel held Monday.
In two separate lawsuits, residents claimed that the city’s district maps – redrawn every 10 years after the U.S. Census to account for changes in population and demographics – “artificially split” neighborhoods, including LA’s Koreatown, and unfairly created a Latino-majority district in order to protect incumbent council members.
Residents claimed the process was designed to increase the number of black voters and decrease the number of white voters to benefit City Council President Herb Wesson, the district’s black incumbent.
The plaintiffs said Wesson bragged in a speech that as a result of the gerrymandering, “a minimum of two of the council peoples will be black for the next 30 years.”
LA officials denied the plaintiffs’ claims and said demographics in the district had remained largely unchanged from the last time lines were redrawn in 2002.
U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall granted summary judgment to the city in February 2015, finding that even if residents could prove race played a role, there was no evidence on the record that “race is the predominant or only motivating factor.”
On Monday, a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel agreed the residents hadn’t made their case.
In a 25-page opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Jacqueline Nguyen said the residents failed to show race played a significant role in the city’s process for drawing final boundaries in its 2012 redistricting.
“This evidence certainly shows that race was a motivation in drawing CD 10. For [redistricting commissioner Christopher] Ellison and Wesson, it may have even been the only motivation. Ellison never offered any justification other than race for his proposed boundaries. But the relevant inquiry is whether ‘race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature’s decision’ as to the final boundaries,” Nguyen wrote for the panel.
“And here, plaintiffs have not made the requisite showing to raise a genuine dispute of fact. Had Ellison been the final decision maker, then on this record plaintiffs may have been able to make a compelling showing of predominance. However, Ellison and Wesson were only two people in a process that incorporated multiple layers of decisions and alterations from the entire commission, as well as the City Council.”
Nguyen also noted city reports showed LA “sought to rebalance the populations” in each district while also unifying neighborhood councils into a single district.
Plaintiffs had sought to depose city officials about the redistricting process, but the panel declined citing “legislative privilege” and a lack of justification for a substantial intrusion in the City Council’s legislative process.
“The factual record in this case falls short of justifying the ‘substantial intrusion’ into the legislative process,” Nguyen wrote for the panel. “Although plaintiffs call for a categorical exception whenever a constitutional claim directly implicates the government’s intent, that exception would render the privilege ‘of little value.’
“Without sufficient grounds to distinguish those circumstances from the case at hand, we conclude that the district court properly denied discovery on the ground of legislative privilege,” she continued.
Nguyen acknowledged “not all communities will be satisfied with the outcome” of the city’s redistricting process because even longstanding communities, such as Koreatown – the nation’s largest Korean community – get split into multiple districts and therefore encounter “difficulty getting elected officials to address [its] needs.”
The city has to balance the “passionate advocacy” from residents with redistricting guidelines in strictures of the city charter and U.S and California constitutions, Nguyen said, and in this case the plaintiffs hadn’t proven the 2012 process violated the city charter or the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Watford and U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett, sitting by designation from the Northern District of Iowa, joined Nguyen on the panel.
The residents’ attorney Rex Heinke of Akin Gump said by email, “We are disappointed by the decision and are considering our appellate options.”
Attorneys for the other parties involved did not return requests for comment by press time.