Thrust of Voting Rights Case by Latinos Revealed

Times Staff Writer

In the first glimpse of planned testimony in Los Angeles County’s landmark voting rights case, experts hired by Latino plaintiffs contend that county officials engaged in a history of “racial gerrymandering” that has long discriminated against Latinos.

Specialists for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund also claim that county services, including health care for Latinos, have suffered with the absence of any Latino on the Board of Supervisors.

Demographic experts, who are expected to testify for MALDEF when the voting rights trial begins in September, are challenging the county’s assertion that it cannot create a Latino-majority district without jeopardizing the voting rights of blacks.


These views, which are contained in preliminary reports submitted last week and made available to The Times on Monday as part of the voting rights case, go to the heart of MALDEF’s discrimination case against the county.

Both MALDEF and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a federal lawsuit last August accusing the Board of Supervisors and other county officials of discriminating against Latinos by redrawing district lines in such a way to preclude the election of a Latino representative.

Two weeks later, the U.S. Justice Department filed a similar lawsuit and asked the court to order the county to revise the district lines. Now, both cases are running a parallel course in federal court, and Jose Garza, director of the voting rights project for MALDEF, said the lineup of experts underscores the importance of the case. The cases are expected to come to trial in September and may be merged at that time.

“I think these reports reflect that we are taking this case very seriously and are prepared to go to trial,” Garza said Monday. “It’s a clear fragmentation of the Latino community, and we think we have a very strong case.”

Among the preliminary evidence and expert witnesses MALDEF is expected to rely on during the trial are:

* Charles Cotrell, a Texas academician who was an expert witness in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that successfully challenged Texas’ at-large system of electing legislators. Cotrell concluded that while Latinos represented about 27% of Los Angeles County’s 7.5-million population in 1980, preliminary reports show their voting power was split or they were “racially gerrymandered” during the 1981 redistricting and even before then.


* Geraldine Dallek, a public health consultant, who maintained that studies have shown that “the poor Hispanic population dependent on Los Angeles County hospitals and clinics (does) not have access to adequate health services.”

* Leo Bardo F. Estrada, a UCLA professor of urban planning and a Census Bureau consultant, who concluded that Latinos rank far below other ethnic groups in socioeconomic status and argued that a supervisorial district can be drawn where Latinos comprise a majority of voting-age citizens.

The feasibility of creating a Latino district is expected to be a major point of contention with the county, whose own experts, in similar papers submitted last week, strongly disagreed that such a district could be formed to meet the Voting Rights Act.

William A.V. Clark, chairman of the UCLA geography department and a demographer hired by the county who has testified in similar cases nationwide, claimed that available data shows that “it is not possible to draw a plan in which one district contains an effective Hispanic voting majority.”

Relying on census data and census tracts identified by both MALDEF and the Justice Department, Clark said factoring in citizenship and voting-age criteria limit the ability of the county to draw new lines that would actually create a district with a majority of voting-age Latinos.

Mary F. Wawro, senior assistant county counsel, cautioned that a plaintiff’s proposal to reshape Supervisor Kenneth Hahn’s 2nd Supervisorial District, which includes South-Central Los Angeles, could help Latinos at the expense of black voters.


“You could end up diluting the voting power of blacks,” Wawro said, “and the board could be in the position of being accused of violating the Voting Rights Act for blacks.”

Other county experts also challenged claims made by MALDEF’s roster of witnesses and said that their own data shows that the county has not discriminated against Latinos.

But Mark Rosenbaum, an ACLU attorney, called the county arguments specious and said it was merely an effort to detract from the fact that Latinos have been effectively shut out of the county’s governing board.

“You don’t need a demographer to say that these districts are fragmented to the maximum extent possible. . . . These are simply five white supervisors trying to hold onto their fiefdoms,” Rosenbaum said.