A federal court judge refused Monday to dismiss a Justice Department lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles that claims a 1982 reapportionment plan, establishing the current boundaries of City Council districts, discriminates against Latinos.
U.S. District Judge James Ideman, however, agreed to consider suspending further legal proceedings for several months to allow the City Council time to draw new district lines giving Latinos fair representation. He said he would rule in two weeks.
Ideman also expanded the lawsuit to allow lawyers for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and Chinese-American residents to join the civil complaint after noting that council members or the Justice Department may confront "a situation where to give something to one group may be taking away something for another."
The City Council has staunchly denied any wrongdoing in passing its reapportionment plan four years ago. But under pressure from the Justice Department lawsuit, the council has already voted to produce another redistricting proposal by July 31.
In issuing his ruling, Ideman applauded the city's decision to voluntarily realign its voting districts. "It is the responsible thing to do. It is the right thing to do," he said.
But the judge denied the city's request to dismiss the federal lawsuit as moot because the council has agreed to discard the 1982 plan. Ideman said that even if the council agreed on a new reapportionment plan, it still may not win Justice Department approval or the support of minority groups that have a stake in the redistricting process.
The judge added that if the 1982 plan is jettisoned by the courts and the council fails to produce another plan or finds itself embroiled in a prolonged legal fight, then the city's 1987 elections could be in jeopardy.
"I wouldn't cancel the elections. That would be the absolute worst alternative," Ideman said. But the judge suggested that council members may have to run as at-large candidates if no new district lines are approved in time.
Sheila Delaney, a Justice Department attorney, told Ideman that there should be provisions for a speedy trial in case the new plan is not satisfactory. She warned that if the 1987 elections are threatened, the city would have to "share the burden of that delay."
Threat Called Negligible
But Jonathan Steinberg, an attorney representing the city, assured Ideman that the threat was negligible. "I am sure none of us is going to let that happen," he said.
The city has asked Ideman to halt legal proceedings until July 31 to allow city officials to concentrate on the new reapportionment plan. The judge indicated Monday that he may rule on that issue in two weeks and suspended pre-trial preparations until then.
In its lawsuit, the Justice Department accuses city officials of "fracturing" the growing political influence of Latino voters by the way they redistricted in 1982. The civil complaint, filed in November, alleges that the redistricting plan diluted the strength of Latino voters by scattering them over several council districts.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a major Latino organization, has joined as a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit.