PASADENA, CA – A federal court of appeals today rejected a challenge to the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) brought by a former mayor of the City of Poway.
The three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a district court’s ruling that held that city officials did not racially gerrymander districts when they switched from at-large elections in which all voters choose all council members, to smaller neighborhood districts in which residents elect their own representative.
MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus (Advancing Justice — ALC), and the Law Office of Molly P. Matter intervened in the case in June 2018 on behalf of several voters who sought to defend their access to political representation as required by the CVRA.
In the decision against former Poway mayor Don Higginson’s appeal, the judges held that “it is well settled that governments may adopt measures designed ‘to eliminate racial disparities through race-neutral means.’ ”
“From the start, this lawsuit was about pursuing a partisan, political agenda, not about a former mayor’s voting rights,” said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF. “The Ninth Circuit has now recognized how meritless the suit was, and has now shut down this unwarranted right-wing attack on California voting rights protections.”
Today’s decision follows a ruling in February dismissing the California Attorney General from the lawsuit, and ordering the former Poway mayor to amend the lawsuit or show cause why the entire lawsuit should not be dismissed, including as to the city and groups that intervened to defend against the lawsuit.
Higginson declined to amend the lawsuit and asked the court to dismiss the case so he could “seek review in the Ninth Circuit against all Defendants,” according to court documents. The Ninth Circuit heard oral argument on the case in November.
“The CVRA is an important tool for Californians to ensure that all voters have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process,” said Julia Gomez, staff attorney at MALDEF who argued before the Ninth Circuit panel. “We are very pleased that the Ninth Circuit agrees with a California court of appeals that the CVRA is constitutional, and that it upheld the district court’s dismissal of Higginson’s complaint.”
In November 2017, the Project on Fair Representation, an organization led by right-wing financier Ed Blum, filed the federal suit on behalf of Higginson alleging that the CVRA and the switch to district-based elections are unlawful and result in racial gerrymandering. The lawsuit was filed just one month after Poway, located in San Diego County, switched election systems. City officials said they made the change fearing they would be sued for violating the CVRA.
The CVRA has successfully addressed concerns that at-large voting systems too often dilute the voting strength of minority groups. By contrast, district-based systems allow under-represented groups to elect representatives of their choice from their own communities.
Read the order to dismiss HERE.