Court of Appeal Decision in Yumori-Kaku et al. v. City of Santa Clara

The City of Santa Clara’s method of electing city council members at-large — in which each council member is elected by all City voters — violated the California Voting Rights Act, a California appellate court held late last year. The Sixth District Court of Appeal held that the remedy requiring the City to transition to district-based city council elections did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. It determined that the CVRA continues to apply to charter cities and does not impinge on their plenary authority to control the manner of electing their officers. Lastly, the court affirmed the trial court’s award of more than $3 million in attorneys’ fees and costs to the plaintiffs and also granted plaintiffs costs on appeal.

In Yumori-Kaku et al. v. City of Santa Clara, five Asian-American residents sued the City, contending that the City’s at-large elections for councilmembers violated the CVRA, and that “racially polarized voting” between the electoral choices of Asian-American voters and non-Asian-American voters prevented Asian-Americans from electing candidates of their choice to the city council. The plaintiffs sought a court order to require the City to implement district-based elections and attorneys’ fees and costs.
The trial court ruled that the CVRA preempted the City’s charter provision establishing at-large elections. The trial court then found, based upon the statistical analyses presented at trial that:

  1. “racially polarized voting” occurred in five out of the 10 city council elections from 2002 and 2016 and that Asian-Americans voted cohesively as a bloc in six of these races , and
  2. “racially polarized voting” existed in four out of the nine school elections between 2000 and 2016.

As a result, the trial court found that the City violated the CVRA and ordered, as a remedy, that the City implement district-based elections for six city council seats and retain the at-large system of election for the mayor’s seat beginning with the November 2018 election.

The City also challenged the trial court’s use of statistical evidence to support its finding of “racially polarized voting.” On appeal, the City argued that these statistics did not demonstrate “racially polarized voting” – that the majority voting bloc (Caucasian voters)“usually” voted to defeat the candidate preferred by Asian-American voters. The City argued that “usually” means “more than 50 percent.”

The Court of Appeal held that the plaintiffs’ showing of “racially polarized voting” in five out of 10 past city council elections was sufficient. The court held that under the CVRA, when the factual findings show an equal number of polarized and non-polarized elections over time, a trial court may find “racially polarized voting” occurred. In rejecting a strict mathematical test, the court reasoned that this legal standard requires consideration of local circumstances and a weighing of factors. Whether repeated occurrences of “racially polarized voting” satisfies the “usually” requirement depends on local context and factual circumstances.

Further, the Court of Appeal rejected the City’s claims that the remedy of district-based elections violated the Equal Protection Clause. The court cited to Sanchez v. City of Modesto (2006), finding that only rational basis review was the applicable standard, and, therefore, the remedy did not violate Equal Protection. Under the “rational basis” test, most government regulations, including the CVRA’s mandate, will pass an Equal Protection challenge.

The City then argued that a charter city has plenary authority under the California Constitution to decide the manner in which their city council members are elected, which includes at-large elections. The Court declined to depart from the 2014 holding in Jauregui v. City of Palmdale, which held that the CVRA preempts contrary charter provisions. The court also noted that the Legislature has since codified the holding in Palmdale to expressly make charter provisions subject to the CVRA. In finding the trial court had not erred, the court affirmed the award of attorneys’ fees and costs, and awarded plaintiffs their costs on appeal.

The Court of Appeal’s decision in Santa Clara will make it more challenging for cities and public agencies to defend against CVRA challenges to their at-large election systems, particularly in disproving the third Gingles factor because the court rejected a strict quantitative threshold to measure whether a majority has sufficiently voted as a bloc to allow it to “usually” defeat the minority-preferred candidate.

Public agencies are now awaiting the California Supreme Court’s decision in Pico Neighborhood Association v. City of Santa Monica, after the appellate court decision favored the City of Santa Monica against the plaintiff’s CVRA claim.

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