LOS ANGELES – A federal appeals court panel ruled today that civil rights advocates can intervene in a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the City of Poway’s election system and challenges the constitutionality of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA).
The lawsuit was filed last year by a former Poway mayor who claims the CVRA violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. A federal court ruled in February that the former mayor did not have grounds to sue and dismissed the complaint. It also ruled that because the lawsuit was dismissed, there was no need for the civil rights organizations to intervene.
In today‘s ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned the lower court ruling and said the lawsuit can go forward. With the complaint reinstated, the court granted the motion by the civil rights groups – MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles (Advancing Justice – LA), and Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (Advancing Justice – ALC) – to intervene in the case on behalf of Poway residents, the California League Of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and residents in the Antelope Valley Community College District to defend their access to political representation as required by the CVRA.
“The court recognized that Latino and Asian American voters have an interest in protecting their voting rights,” said Denise M. Hulett, national senior counsel at MALDEF. “We look forward to a full and fair opportunity to present all of the facts and legal arguments necessary to protect those rights.”
Lawyers for the residents and LULAC argued in the motion to intervene that even if the California attorney general’s office may properly defend the state law, it may not have the same interest in protecting the City of Poway’s changes to its election system.
“Given the City’s decision not to defend its own voluntarily adopted district map, we are pleased that the Ninth Circuit recognized the need for our clients to take up that mantle,” said MALDEF staff attorney Kip Hustace, who argued the appeal before the Ninth Circuit panel. “We will demonstrate that by-district voting and the specific districts drawn do not harm the plaintiff.”
The lawsuit was filed by the former mayor in October 2017, a month after Poway decided to switch from an at-large election system to district-based elections. In February, a federal district court judge ruled that the former mayor did not have standing to sue and dismissed the complaint.
Today’s Ninth Circuit ruling overturning the dismissal of the lawsuit also reversed the denial of the motion to intervene. The case will be returned to District Court with the state Attorney General and the City of Poway, located in San Diego County, as defendants.
“The CVRA is essential to protecting the voting rights of minority community members in an electoral system that too often suppressed their voices,” said Jonathan Stein, Voting Rights Program Manager and Staff Attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus. “It is imperative that this important civil rights law is upheld.”
The CVRA has been successfully used to address concerns that at-large voting systems too often dilute the voting strength of minority groups. By contrast, district-based systems help under-represented groups elect representatives of their choice from their own communities.
“We will continue to fight to uphold the legality of the CVRA,” said Deanna Kitamura, Voting Rights Project Director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles. “District elections are giving a voice to otherwise unheard minority voters.”
Read the Ninth Circuit panel ruling here.