L.A. Supervisor Districts Illegal : Discrimination: A federal judge orders redistricting to help Latinos win a seat. Election results in doubt.
A federal judge ruled Monday that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors intentionally discriminated against Latinos in 1981 when it drew new district boundaries.
In a decision that could dramatically alter the county’s political landscape, U.S. District Judge David V. Kenyon found that the supervisors violated the federal Voting Rights Act and must draft a new redistricting plan designed to help the first Latino win a seat on the powerful board.
The judge said he would wait until a hearing Thursday to decide whether to throw out the results of balloting today for two supervisorial seats. He also urged the supervisors to reconsider expanding the five-member board to remedy discrimination against Latinos.
In a 131-page opinion, Kenyon said, “The Hispanic community has sadly been denied an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice to the Board of Supervisors. . . . “
“During the 1981 redistricting process,” the judge wrote, “the supervisors’ primary objective was to protect their incumbencies and that of their allies. This objective, however, was inescapably linked to the continued fragmentation of the Hispanic population core.”
The historic voting rights lawsuit was filed by the U.S. Justice Department and civil rights groups in 1988, two years after the Los Angeles City Council settled a similar suit and created a Latino district.
The suit against the county alleged that the all-Anglo Board of Supervisors met secretly in 1981 and divided heavily Latino neighborhoods in East Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley into three districts, diluting the voting strength of Latinos. All five members of the current board participated in the redistricting.
Latinos account for a third of the county’s population, but no Spanish-surnamed person has ever been elected to the board.
The ruling not only enhances the chances for the first Latino to be elected, it also may have broader repercussions.
The ruling could end a decade of conservative dominance of the board, which oversees a $10-billion budget and serves 8 1/2 million residents--a population that is greater than those of 42 states. It also could threaten the political security of some board members.
At the very least, attorneys for both sides said, the district boundaries face a radical realignment, altering the political representation for hundreds of thousands of county residents.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich denied Monday that the board discriminated against Latinos and called the ruling a “joy ride of judicial activism.” He said that he is certain that the board will appeal the ruling.
Supervisor Kenneth Hahn said he will introduce a motion at today’s meeting asking supervisors to place on the November ballot a measure expanding the five-member board to seven members.
Supervisor Peter Schabarum called it “unfortunate” that Kenyon would rule on the eve of the election, “further confusing the election.”
“I continue to believe that district lines should not be based on ethnic factors,” said Schabarum, who decided not to run for reelection this year. Supervisors Ed Edelman, who is seeking reelection today in the 3rd District, and Deane Dana had no comment.
Attorneys for the county, which spent more than $3 million fighting the voting rights lawsuit, did not return calls Monday. They had previously asked Kenyon to allow today’s election winners to serve until a special election can be held under a new redistricting plan. The plaintiffs have asked that today’s election results be thrown out.
One of the top contenders in today’s 10-candidate race to succeed Schabarum in the 1st District is a Latina, Sarah Flores.
“What is this telling (our supporters), that all that work and all that energy is wasted?” Flores lamented Monday.
But civil rights attorneys have argued that even if a Latino wins, it does not resolve the issues that prompted the lawsuit--that Latinos are denied an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice to the board.
“We will ask for the results of the election to be set aside,” said Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, a plaintiff in the suit. “The judge’s decision means the election in Districts 1 and 3 are illegal.”
Rosenbaum said he will “argue for a special election and for an expanded board.”
Attorneys for both sides previously have said that they believe the judge will give the supervisors time--Kenyon may decide Thursday how long--to redraw their lines for five or more districts. If the judge disapproves of the new redistricting plan, he can redraw the boundaries. The plaintiffs have said they will recommend plans to the supervisors.
The suit was brought by the Justice Department, the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to reverse what the plaintiffs said was a decades-long pattern of discrimination. The suit was filed on behalf of five Latino voters.
During the trial, the plaintiffs alleged that since the 1950s, the county had deliberately fashioned district lines to deny Latinos political representation on the board. Witnesses testified that the discrimination ranged from restricted access to swimming pools and movie theaters in the early 1900s to English literacy requirements for voting in the early 1960s.
In a hastily called press conference at the MALDEF office in downtown Los Angeles, Latino leaders praised the judge’s ruling.
“We want a remedy now,” said Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel of MALDEF. “To be told once again to wait is not acceptable. We will not wait.”
Hernandez said MALDEF will seek to have a redistricting plan formulated within a month.
Rosenbaum said a new election could be held by year’s end.
“This is truly a great and historic day,” he said. “This is a day that belongs to the dreams of a nation.
“For 115 years the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has been an exclusively, all-white, male club. . . . Now that club membership is open to everyone,” said Rosenbaum.
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina, who had earlier said she would consider running for supervisor, praised the ruling. “It means we have a fair opportunity to elect our own . . . and finally, finally, get Latino representation on the Board of Supervisors.”
Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alatorre, who has been widely viewed as a candidate for a new Latino seat on the county board, hailed Monday’s decision as “a victory for everybody who believes in representative government.”
For Yolanda Garza, the East Los Angeles chemical engineer on whose behalf the ACLU-MALDEF suit was filed, the victory was particularly sweet.
“I knew it was going to happen,” she said. “Now I can go back and tell my community that it made a difference.”
Garza, who said she has long been active in the community and with MALDEF in its leadership training programs, said her involvement in the suit “came from the heart. For my family, for my community, for my own self worth I wanted to do something.”
In Washington, Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh issued a statement hailing the judge’s decision “as a victory against discrimination in the most important role citizens play in our democracy--the right to vote in free and fair elections in districts drawn without bias.”
In his ruling, Kenyon urged supervisors to reconsider expanding the board, saying he believes the districts are too large for one person to adequately represent.
“The court believes that expansion may well be in the best interest of all concerned,” he wrote. “Since the task of reapportionment is properly a legislative function, it is appropriate in this case to allow the Board of Supervisors a reasonable opportunity to meet constitutional requirements by adopting a substitute measure.”
The judge did not recommend a size for an expanded board. But plaintiffs have talked about increasing the board from five to seven or nine seats. Expansion has been opposed by the board’s conservative majority.
“In this case, the explosive and continuous growth of the Los Angeles County Hispanic community was evident at the time of the adoption of the 1981 redistricting plan as was the steady decline of the county’s non-Hispanic white population,” Kenyon wrote.
During the trial, the county argued that it was not possible for the board to carve out a district in which a majority of the voters are Latino because many Latinos are not citizens or old enough to vote. The county also denied that it engaged in discrimination and said that some supervisors attempted unsuccessfully to carve out a Latino district.
But Kenyon ruled, “The court finds that Hispanic community is sufficiently large and geographically compact such that a five-district plan can be drawn in which Hispanics comprise a majority of the citizen voting-age population in one of the five districts.”
A major political impediment to creation of a Latino district was removed in March when Schabarum decided not to seek reelection. Supervisors can carve out a Latino majority out of Schabarum’s district without worrying about the political impact on Schabarum.
Such a move could jeopardize the conservatives’ control of the board. Therefore, the board’s conservative majority might seek to place the liberal Edelman in a new Latino district.
Kenyon’s ruling allows the ACLU and MALDEF to seek reimbursement from the county for their costs, estimated at more than $2 million.
Times staff writers Sheryl Stolberg and John Kendall contributed to this story
LATINOS IN SUPERVISORIAL DISTRICTS
DISTRICT ANGLO BLACK LATINO % LATINO TOTAL* 1. Schabarum 732,809 62,726 874,804 47% 1,860,947 2. Hahn 301,542 626,120 610,365 35% 1,732,006 3. Edelman 605,879 52,795 888,611 47% 1,825,658 4. Dana 855,087 143,689 345,044 22% 1,564,177 5. Antonovich 1,058,378 86,343 403,089 23% 1,726,285 L.A. COUNTY 3,553,695 971,673 3,121,913 36% 8,709,073
SOURCE: Los Angeles County, Dept. of Health Services population estimate, June, 1989
* Includes Asians, Pacific Islanders and others