Voting Rights Act Suit Filed Against San Juan Capistrano

Advocates for Latino voters are suing the city of San Juan Capistrano under the California Voting Rights Act, alleging that the city has an at-large city council election system that prevents Latinos from electing their candidates of choice.

If the suit is successful, the city would have to change its council election system to guarantee more representation for Latinos. The 2010 U.S. Census showed almost 40 percent of the city’s residents are Latino, yet there are no Latinos currently serving on council, according to the suit – which was filed by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, as well as residents Tina Auclair and Louie Camacho.

The city’s political culture is infected with anti-Latino racism to a degree rarely seen in the 21st century, said Kevin Shenkman, partner with the firm Shenkman & Hughes PC and the attorney who filed the suit.

Shenkman specifically called out a political group behind the small newspaper known as Community Common Sense for using anti-Latino rhetoric as a cudgel to win elections.

“Immigration is solely the province of the federal government. And yet by this sort of race bating -- sanctuary cities, illegal aliens, and all this other nonsense -- they’re able to drum up enough support to win elections,” Shenkman said.

Latinos have consistently voted for candidates who fail to win seats, and the Latino voter registration level is at 16 percent, Shenkman said. He added that the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project’s efforts to register Latinos has been frustrated by an election system rigged on behalf of white residents, leaving Latinos with little motivation to engage in the political process.

Shenkman is demanding the city change to a district election system whereby council candidates are only elected by the residents of their district. He said he believes the city could carve at least one majority Latino district.

If the city doesn’t comply, Shenkman said he’ll be seeking a judicial order to change the system and redo the elections for all five council members.

Shenkman expects to touch a “raw nerve” in the city -- "which is exactly why I think it’s needed,” he said.

This suit is the latest in a series of Voting Rights Act suits filed in recent years against cities in Orange County. In every other case, including those filed against Anaheim, Fullerton and Garden Grove, the cities have settled the suit and agreed to hold district elections.

Kim McCarthy, a vocal member of Community for Common Sense, dismissed the suit as the angry reaction by Auclair and a political group she's aligned with that is marginalized at City Hall and looking to win council seats in the next election. McCarthy denied that the newspaper’s rhetoric against “illegal aliens” has enabled the group to win a majority of the council for candidates it supports.

McCarthy also pointed out that Londres Uso, a Latino, had served on the council in recent years.

Uso was mayor in 2010 but lost his bid for reelection. Another former mayor who was also Latino, Joe Soto, lost his bid for reelection in 2008.

“I didn’t get elected either. I ran,” McCarthy said. “Maybe we can cordon off an area that’s just Irish Italians, and I could get elected.”

A phone call to Mayor Pam Patterson’s office was returned by Cristina Talley, an attorney with Best, Best, & Krieger, a law firm that provides the city with municipal law services. Talley said city officials were withholding comment because the city hadn’t yet been served with notice of the suit.

Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately described Kim McCarthy's criticism of one of the plaintiffs in the state Voting Rights Act lawsuit. We regret the error.

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