High Court Leaves in Place California Election Boundaries

(CN) — The Supreme Court refused to hear a constitutional challenge to the California Voting Rights Act over its requirement that some local governments hold district rather than at-large elections.

The 2002 law prohibits sweeping at-large elections in favor of individual district elections in areas where minorities may be impeded from electing candidates of their choice.

It affects communities like Poway, a wealthy city of 50,000 in San Diego County, where 63% of residents are white, 18% are Latino, 12% are Asian and 1.4% are black.

Poway changed its citywide, “at-large” system for electing its four city council members to a by-district voting system after receiving a letter from Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, who threatened to sue the city for diluting the Latino population’s ability to elect candidates who will represent their interests.

Former Poway Mayor Don Higginson challenged the resulting shift as unconstitutional, claiming the new election map violates the Equal Protection Clause, which forbids assigning citizens to a district on the basis of race, a practice known as “racial gerrymandering.”

Former Poway Mayor Don Higginson.

The Ninth Circuit ultimately dismissed the case in 2019, after previously ruling that Higginson had successfully alleged “he resides in a racially gerrymandered district and that the city’s adoption of Map 133 reduced the number of candidates for whom he can vote.”

At oral argument last November, U.S. Circuit Judges Andrew Hurwitz and Mary Murguia — both Barack Obama appointees — and Senior U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr., a George W. Bush appointee sitting by designation from the Southern District of Mississippi, were not receptive to the idea that Poway had been forced to adopt the new election scheme based on a racial motive imposed by the state.

The “whole CVRA scheme is designed to put a gun to the city’s head,” Higginson’s attorney Jeffrey Harris said.

The panel rejected this reasoning. “Plaintiff alleges no facts concerning the city’s motivations for placing him or any other Poway voter in any particular electoral district,”  Hurwitz wrote for the unanimous panel in an unpublished, 4-page memo.

On Tuesday, the nation’s highest court denied Higginson’s bid to hear the case without comment, a move praised by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra through his press office.

“The California Voting Rights Act is a critical tool for preventing discrimination against voters in our state,” he said in a statement. “Our office is pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision to leave the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in place and we’re proud of the efforts of our legal team to uphold the constitutionality of the act.”

Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which intervened in the case in June 2018 to defend access to political representation guaranteed by the CVRA, also praised the Supreme Court’s rejection Tuesday.

“This rejection of the attempted appeal — without any written opposition from defendants or intervenors — sends a strong message to those who seek to return to a regime where at-large boards or councils could simply ignore the interests of significant minority groups,” he said. “The CVRA is important, protective legislation to ensure fair representation in local California government; all converted jurisdictions should prepare to draw new and fair district lines following the release of 2020 Census data.”

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