Santa Barbara Judge Rejects COLAB’s Redistricting Lawsuit as ‘Patently Absurd’

Conservative Watchdog Group Alleged That Law Firm County Hired Constituted a Conflict of Interest

In his lawsuit, COLAB’s Andy Caldwell (above) argued that the plain legal language from which the county’s ad hoc redistricting commission sprang barred the commission from hiring the law firm Strumwasser & Woocher. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

Judge Thomas Anderle rejected a lawsuit filed by Andy Caldwell and COLAB, the county’s conservative watchdog organization, challenging the board of supervisors’ decision to approve hiring the law firm of Strumwasser & Woocher for the county’s ad hoc redistricting commission on the grounds that it constituted a conflict of interest. 

Caldwell argued that the plain legal language from which the redistricting commission sprang barred the commission from selecting Fredric Woocher as its attorney. Woocher had represented former supervisor Doreen Farr in a legal matter in 2013, but the language approved by voters in the creation of the commission bars anyone who did paid political work in Santa Barbara County within the last eight years from serving the commission as a consultant. Likewise, Caldwell cited language approved by voters that appears to prohibit anyone not residing in Santa Barbara County from being selected as a consultant. 

Judge Anderle did not rule that the ballot language did not say what Caldwell said it said. Instead, he ruled that the implications of Caldwell’s interpretation of that language are “patently absurd.” He added, “The plain meaning of the words of a statute may be disregarded only when the literal application of their literal meaning would produce absurd consequences.” Clearly, he stated, that’s what happened in this case. 

Election law, the judge ruled, is a highly complex legal specialty. Of the four law firms that applied for the legal contract, none were in Santa Barbara County. Likewise, he noted, Woocher’s law firm — not Woocher himself — got the contract. A law firm cannot register to vote or reside in Santa Barbara County, Anderle concluded, citing the “requirements” listed by Caldwell that county voters approved. 

The outcome of Caldwell’s legal challenge comes as little surprise; the fact that it was filed at all demonstrates how seriously all sides take the redistricting process in shaping the political maps that will define county politics in the decade to come. Woocher has effectively represented progressive, liberal, and environmental-minded candidates in major Santa Barbara legal battles in years past, and Caldwell has reason to worry about his legal skills.

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