Judge Grants Delay of Anaheim Council Districts Lawsuit


Anaheim city seal at City Hall. (Photo by: Tracy Wood)

Orange County Superior Court Judge Franz E. Miller Tuesday afternoon issued a ruling postponing until July a lawsuit against the city of Anaheim demanding the implementation of a new City Council election system, saying that a committee studying the electoral process should be allowed to finish its work.

The American Civil Liberties Union last year filed a lawsuit on behalf of Latino activists against the city, alleging that its at-large council election system violates the 2001 California Voting Rights Act, which requires adequate council representation of minorities.

Anaheim's population is 54 percent Latino, but few council members in the city's history have been Latino. Currently, all five council members are non-Latino and live in the affluent neighborhoods of Anaheim Hills or the Colony District. The ACLU proposes a switch to a council districts system whereby residents would elect only the representative in their districts.

The city challenges the validity of the lawsuit in court documents, arguing that members of minority groups have consistently been elected to the City Council. According to the city, 10 seats have been up for election since 2002, with seven of those seats filled by either “Asian” or “Hispanic” council members.

One of those council members is former Councilwoman Lorri Galloway, who is Spanish and Filipina, a mix that ACLU attorney Robert Ruben said doesn't meet the criteria for Latina under the Voting Rights Act.

The city's attorneys argue in court filings that a citizens advisory committee, which faces a May 31 deadline for its recommendations, was formed to study council elections and might conclude that the city should change its system. Given that possibility, the court should allow the democratic process its course, the city argues in court documents.

Miller agreed and said that the court should be open to a democratic solution to constitutional questions. With arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court that states should be allowed to legislate same-sex marriage before the nation's highest court steps in, this concept is “well grounded” in the nation's justice system, Miller said.

“As is the concept justice delayed is justice denied,” replied ACLU attorney Robert Rubin.

Miller said that three months “in the scheme of things” seemed reasonable. “It's not lost on me that we're talking about a city that for many years has been Hispanic and has only had three Hispanic council members in that time,” he said.

Miller also said that the citizens advisory committee at the very least would provide information important to a judicial ruling. He referred to  national voting rights cases before Southern courts in the 1960s and 1970s and said judges in those cases would have benefited from similar studies.

Miller decided to postpone the case and set a conference with attorneys for July 9 to hear the city's plan for addressing the ACLU's complaint.

ACLU attorneys expressed concern that the city could not have a feasible plan for implementing council districts in time for the 2014 general election.

The civil rights lawyers argue in court filings that even if the city did complete the process, voters could reject the proposed system, which would leave only five months to litigate the issue before the general election.

Similarly, if voters approved a council districts plan in June 2014, that allowed only a few months before the general election to form the districts and have candidates file, ACLU attorney Bardis Vakili said after the court proceedings.

“That's cutting it close,” Vakili said. “I'm curious to see how they're going to address that.”

Meanwhile, a handful of Latina residents in attendance said they were disappointed by the judge's decision.

Mariana Rivera, a resident of the Guinida neighborhood of southern Anaheim, blames Latinos' lack of representation for what she says is an unequal distribution of city resources between areas like Anaheim Hills and the city's mostly working-class flatlands area.

“We feel we don't have so much time. We need our voices to be heard now,” Rivera said.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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