In a significant boost to minorities seeking a stronger voice in local governments, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Latinos in California have been the victims of "ubiquitous" discrimination and need not prove current discriminatory practices to challenge at-large, citywide elections.
The ruling, which could provide strong ammunition for minority groups challenging at-large election of city council and school board members in communities throughout the Southwest, held that the city of Watsonville's at-large elections impermissibly dilute the political power of the city's 48.9% Latino population.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected arguments that low voter turnout among Latinos, not the electoral process itself, prevented the election of Latino candidates to office in Watsonville for nearly 15 years.
"Low voter registration and turnout levels are indicative of lingering effects of past discrimination," Judge Dorothy W. Nelson wrote for a three-member panel of the court. "Discrimination against Hispanics in California and the Southwest has pervaded nearly all aspects of public and private life."
The Santa Cruz County city must come up with a new plan, most likely a form of district elections, to give minorities more of a chance to elect their own candidate.
Minority groups predicted that the decision will make it easier to prove that at-large election systems in many cities have so diluted the voting strength of blacks, Latinos and Asians that large minority voting blocs have been unable to elect candidates to office.
More than 400 of California's 450 cities hold citywide council elections. Minority challenges to those practices are pending in a number of communities, including San Diego, Stockton, Chula Vista and National City.
In Watsonville, a farming community, Latinos make up about half of the city's 23,543 residents, and trial evidence showed that Latinos suffer from significantly lower income, employment and educational levels. None of the eight Latino candidates who ran for office between 1971 and 1985 was elected.
Plaintiffs in the case argued that dividing the city into electoral districts would give Latinos a majority in at least two of them.
"This sends a clear message to those populations that there is a remedy available in the courts for restructuring local elections to increase minority representation," said Denise Hulett, a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which challenged the Watsonville election system.
"City governments at this point will have to re-examine their practices and see if they can withstand scrutiny under the norms laid out by this opinion," she said. "It's a grand victory for political participation in California."
Attorney Vincent R. Fontana, representing the city of Watsonville, said it appeared that the court has lowered the burden of proof that minorities must meet in order to prove a history of official discrimination, one of several prerequisites for mounting a challenge to at-large elections.
"It would appear that the Court of Appeals has concluded as a matter of law that Hispanics are discriminated against in California," Fontana said. "If that is what they're saying, then this case has far-reaching effects. It goes well beyond, I think, what the court was even asked to address."
Congress, in its 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, provided that minorities no longer had to prove intentional discrimination in challenging state and local electoral policies such as at-large elections.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1986 set down specific standards for raising such challenges, including the existence of racially polarized voting in a community, the extent to which minorities have been elected to public office, and whether the at-large electoral process was the only obstacle that kept politically and geographically cohesive minority groups from electing candidates.
In its opinion Wednesday, the 9th Circuit set clear guidelines for how those standards will be applied in the nine Western states within the court's jurisdiction.
In one important distinction, the court rejected U.S. District Judge William A. Ingram's finding that Watsonville's Latino community lacks political cohesiveness simply because many eligible Latinos have not registered to vote. Actual voting patterns among Latinos who did vote showed that those voters consistently favored minority candidates. The pattern of voting, the 9th Circuit said, should have been the relevant test, the court held.
The appeals court also rejected assertions that Watsonville's Latinos are not geographically cohesive because 60% of them would still live outside the two heavily Latino districts proposed by plaintiffs in the case.
"It is ironic for the district court to conclude that because many Hispanic voters would still not be able to elect representatives of their choice under the proposed plan, no . . . (challenge) could be maintained, thereby relegating all Hispanic voters to having no political effectiveness," the court said.
Finally, the appeals court said the San Jose district court was wrong to deny the existence of any official discrimination against Latinos in Watsonville simply because the city does not presently have any discriminatory practices.
"We take judicial notice of the ubiquitous historical and current racial discrimination against Hispanics in this part of the United States," the court said, drawing on a long line of studies and court cases that have established discrimination against minorities in education, politics and employment throughout the Southwest.
"This history is more than sufficient to meet the (test)," the court held, remanding the case back to the district court for implementation of a plan that comports with requirements of the Voting Rights Act. Former MALDEF lawyer Joaquin G. Avila said the most likely remedy would be a district election plan.
A MALDEF spokesman in Los Angeles, Richard P. Fajardo, said the case will make it easier for Latinos who are challenging supervisorial district boundaries in Los Angeles County by making it harder to argue that Latino candidates are not elected because Latinos fail to register and vote.
"This case says that's wrong. The fact of the matter is these folks don't have a district they can actually get elected in, and after a while, people get sick of going out and voting when their vote doesn't mean a lot," Fajardo said.