Appeals Court Declines to Join Districting Fray : City Government: Backers and foes of council's redistricting claim victory.


Adding a legal twist to San Diego's redistricting battle, a federal appeals court Thursday rejected a request to intervene in the case, even as a local judge scheduled another possible hearing on the matter.

Thursday's developments--which saw the local federal judge in essence agree to do what a higher court would not--continued the legal maneuvering over the plan to redraw the eight City Council districts as the council prepares to resume its debate next week.

As befitting a case that has spent more time in federal court than City Hall over the past month, Thursday's decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to remain uninvolved ironically may expand, rather than curtail, the case's legal history.

Hours after the appeals court action, U.S. District Judge John Rhoades agreed to hold a hearing later this month on one of the key issues that opponents of the redistricting plan tentatively approved by the City Council had asked the 9th Circuit to address--namely, whether the council has violated a previous legal settlement in its handling of the matter.

Though defenders of the council's redistricting plan hailed the 9th Circuit's decision as a victory, Rhoades' later action enabled attorneys for the Chicano Federation, which opposes the council's redistricting plan on the grounds that it dilutes minority voting strength, to claim that they had won the war despite losing the battle.

"We got what we wanted, so, as a practical matter, it's almost as if we had prevailed," said Michael Aguirre, one of the Latino group's attorneys. "Judge Rhoades has put us back in the game."

Describing Aguirre's interpretation as simply an effort to put a positive spin on a loss, city attorneys and others stressed that the potential Aug. 31 hearing scheduled by Rhoades could be precluded by council action before then.

"By the 31st, this may all be moot," said Jack Katz, a senior deputy city attorney. "The hearing that's been scheduled may never be held."

Last week, Aguirre asked the 9th Circuit to impose an alternative redistricting map prepared by a council-appointed citizens' advisory board, arguing that doing so was necessary to protect minorities' voting rights.

If the appeals court was unwilling to order that proposal's enactment, it should at least direct the U.S. District Court here to proceed with a hearing on whether the council-passed plan violated the settlement agreement, Aguirre argued.

But attorneys for the city and individual council members, emphasizing that the council has not yet taken definitive action on redistricting, responded that any such intervention by the 9th Circuit would be premature.

While the three-justice appeals panel that rejected Aguirre's request Thursday did not specify its reasons for declining to intervene, city officials said the decision bolstered their position. Until a redistricting plan is formally approved, probably later this month, its impact on Latinos' voting rights and adherence to--or violation of--the settlement agreement cannot be determined, they argue.

"This decision will allow the legislative process to proceed, as it should," said Councilman Bob Filner, who supported the redistricting plan passed by a 5-4 vote in July. "After we come up with a final map, if someone still objects, that's the time to decide things in court, not now."

Aguirre, though, preferred to emphasize that Rhoades, at his request, agreed later Thursday to hold the Aug. 31 hearing on whether the council violated the agreement that settled the first phase of the Chicano Federation's 1988 lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the city's electoral system. If the Latino group is satisfied with the council's final redistricting plan, that meeting would not be necessary, Aguirre said.

Under that settlement, the city agreed to establish the citizens' advisory board to assist it with its decennial redistricting task--in particular, to find ways to enhance minority voting clout.

By rejecting the advisory board's map in favor of one proposed by Councilman John Hartley, which was publicized only hours before its approval, the council violated both the spirit and the letter of the agreement, Aguirre contends.

Among various differences between the two plans, arguably the one of greatest legal import is that Hartley's plan would reduce the Latino population in the 8th District from the advisory board's planned 52.2% to 51%.

Aware that the minor numerical change could pose major legal problems, several council members have proposed amendments to Hartley's plan that would restore the Latino percentage in the 8th District back to the 52%-plus level. Those proposed changes and others will be reviewed by both the council and the advisory board at City Hall hearings next week.

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