In a milestone attempt to change the racial makeup of a California court, a federal lawsuit has been brought by Latinos in Monterey County challenging the system of electing local judges that they believe unfairly keeps them off the bench.
The suit invokes the federal Voting Rights Act for the first time in California in an effort to secure greater minority representation in the judiciary. Until now, the act has been used to open the way for minorities to achieve legislative or executive office.
Legal experts said the suit, which challenges the county's at-large election of Municipal Court judges, could be the forerunner of a series of such actions that could have far-reaching effect.
"These suits have a great deal of potential for a very serious effect on the California court system," said former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, now a law professor at UCLA. "They could be as important for the judiciary as the lawsuits in Watsonville and Los Angeles were for changing minority representation in local government."
Under the act, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund brought suit that led to the redrawing of the Los Angeles County supervisorial districts in 1990 and the election of Supervisor Gloria Molina, the first Latino member since 1875.
A similar legal action resulted in a court order forcing the Watsonville City Council to move from at-large elections to single-member districts as a means of increasing minority voting strength. Three of seven council seats now are held by Latinos.
The Monterey County suit, filed in federal district court in San Jose, was the first such action since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last June holding that the Voting Rights Act may be used to challenge judicial elections.
The act was adopted by Congress in 1965 in response to widespread discrimination against black voters, mainly in the South. Later amendments allowed the legislation to be invoked not only against intentional acts of discrimination but election systems that had the effect of diluting minority voting strength.
Forty-one states select at least some of their judges by popular vote but relatively few are from racial minorities. In California, vacancies in the judiciary are filled initially by gubernatorial appointment--and in the last eight years more than 80% of those appointments have gone to whites. Then judges must go before the voters.
Superior Court and municipal judges may be challenged directly by other candidates. Supreme Court and Court of Appeal justices face confirmation elections, in which voters cast "yes" or "no" ballots on whether the justice should be retained.
The suit, brought against Monterey County, was filed by five Latino community activists represented by Joaquin G. Avila, a Milpitas attorney who was active in the Los Angeles County and Watsonville election cases as well.
The suit contends that the countywide consolidation of separate Municipal Court districts into a single court district in a series of actions ending in 1983 was illegal under the act. With the potential to dilute Latino voter strength, the consolidation process should have been submitted for review by a federal court or the U.S. Justice Department, the suit said.
The activists are asking that, without such approval, a single-member district plan be established to provide "racial and ethnic minority voters . . . an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice."
Avila, in an interview, noted that there are 10 municipal judgeships in the county but that a Latino has never attained the municipal bench, even though Latinos make up approximately 40% of the county population. Three Latinos have run for the Municipal Court but failed to win election.
Lawyers are at work devising a district-election plan that would concentrate Latino voters in a way likely to result in the election of at least three Latinos to the municipal bench, he said.
The attempt to increase minority voting potential drew a sympathetic response Wednesday from Sam P. Karras, chairman of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. "I have a strong feeling the way judges are now selected by countywide vote does place a hardship on minorities," Karras said.