California Voting Rights Act Should Not Be a Gift to Lawyers

Open Letter to Assemblymember Das Williams and State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson

Dear Honorable Members of the Legislature:

As you may have heard, a lawsuit was recently brought against the City of Santa Barbara under the California Voting Rights Act. As you may have also heard, the case was recently settled. According to the city press release announcing the settlement, the sole reason for the settlement was to reduce the city’s exposure to exorbitant legal fees being demanded by the attorney for the plaintiffs. The city adamantly denies that any pattern of voting discrimination exists, but it agreed to fundamentally change the manner in which representatives are elected because the City Council felt that it was being legally extorted.

Surely, this is not what the law intended; if so, it should be renamed the “Lawyer’s Get Rich Quick” Act. Apparently, the law as written contains a great deal of excessive verbiage about establishing a pattern of racial discrimination, which courts have determined to be sublimated totally by the law’s prescribed remedy. As courts have interpreted the law, it seems, at-large elections are inherently discriminatory. All that is required to have this remedy imposed, according to the pattern established by the courts, is the filing of a suit.

Because Santa Barbara is a charter city, the council did not even have the option to simply change the election system without a vote of the people, thus denying the city any opportunity to comply with the request, even if it felt it was appropriate, without a court order. The result is that $600,000 that could have been used for services in the very communities the law is intended to benefit is instead being used to line an attorney’s pockets. The only plus side that the city could cite is that it would have been millions had they demanded their day in court.

If you and your colleagues truly believe that at-large elections are inherently discriminatory, as the California Voting Rights Act has been interpreted by the courts, then simply mandate that all cities in California be carved up into little districts. Why create a process that is nothing but a cash cow for opportunistic lawyers, at the expense of the very people the law purports to benefit?

Once news of this obscene settlement spreads, cities throughout the state will be subjected to this legal extortion. Please, clean up this law now.

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