Anatomy of a Potential L.A. County Redistricting Lawsuit

In 1991's landmark L.A. County redistricting case, the Department of Justice played a key role, alongside the ACLU and MALDEF. Will the DOJ get involved again 20 years later? (Photo by Matt Churchill/Creative Commons)

Nearly one month following the L.A. County Board of Supervisors' controversial decision not to create a second Latino-majority district, speculation continues on whether a lawsuit will be filed to challenge the amended map.

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Experts say, it all hinges on whether the Department of Justice gets involved.

"The DOJ has a lot more resources to apply to a situation like this," Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt said. "So, if you are a non-profit with a lot of other priorities, it makes sense to find out whether the DOJ is going to do the financial heavy lifting first."

Experts have, essentially, narrowed down the list of potential non-profits to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which threatened to sue if a second Latino-majority district was not created. Thus far, MALDEF has not commented on whether it will, in fact, file a suit.

So, for now, L.A. County plays the waiting game. However, if 1991 is any indication, the DOJ is busy preparing its case.

In the landmark 1991 case of Garza v. County of Los Angeles, three plaintiffs filed: MALDEF, ACLU and the Department of Justice; the latter being the key player, said Levitt.

"Ultimately, I think it will come down to resources, and that's part of the reason why I think it's likely outside groups will see if the Department of Justice will step forward, or not," Levitt said.

"I think there's a good chance the Justice Department will come in," said Cruz Reynoso, a civil rights lawyer and the first Chicano Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court from 1982 to 1987. Reynoso has served on MALDEF's Board of Directors in the past.

"This is perhaps the single-most important issue dealing with voting rights pertaining to Latinos in the whole country right now," Reynoso said. "This is a huge county in terms of numbers."

This case, experts say, has national significance. Each of the five L.A. County Supervisors govern over populations larger than 15 states, giving them more power than many governors and U.S. Senators.

Levitt surveys the national redistricting scene at his website AllAboutRedistricting.com.

"The scale of the number of citizens it affects and the size of the Latino community it affects definitely makes it nationally significant," Levitt said. "The magnitude of impact is a factor they (DOJ) consider."

When deciding to bring forward a case against the county, MALDEF and the DOJ take a number of factors into consideration, including: national impact, can they get the attorneys they want, how much will it cost (in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars), and, most importantly, can they win. In other words, has the Voting Rights Act (which outlaws discriminatory voting practices against minorities) been violated.

To win, the plaintiffs must show three preconditions are met to prove a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The preconditions as set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Thornburg v. Gingles are:

One, a minority group must be sufficiently large and geographically compact to comprise a majority of the district.

Two, the minority group must demonstrate a pattern of voting for the same candidates.

And three, white voters vote sufficiently as a block to often defeat the minority group's preferred candidate.

"I have little doubt they would find that exists," Reynoso said.

Alan Clayton, a longtime activist and redistricting expert, agrees, but won't go as far as to call it a "slam-dunk case." He believes a serious move will be made in the next two months, to beat the November election for new supervisors. However, he points out, Garza v. County of L.A. was not filed until seven years after the 1981 gerrymandering.

Nevertheless, the courts hold a lot of power, including the ability to delay the November election, draw temporary district boundaries, shorten supervisors' terms and a whole lot more, say experts.

"The only one that said they were serious about filing that I've seen is MALDEF," Clayton said. "We'll see if they do. There's no one else."

Clayton doesn't believe the ACLU will file, as they have not been involved in Voting Rights cases in California for some time, he said.

"There are not many Voting Rights attorneys in California," he said. "There are not many cases. That's not the case in other parts of the country where more cases are going on."

Texas has been a hotbed for cases against the Voting Rights Act, and plaintiffs have seen representation there by MALDEF.

If the case does reach the courts, Clayton feels there are six viable maps that meet the Voting Rights Act requirements: two that he's put forward; two from UCLA professor Leo Estrada, one from the African America Coalition and the final one from Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

If the plaintiff's win, the court could go any number of ways in deciding the final map, from giving the county another crack, to adopting the plaintiff's presented map, to hiring an expert, Clayton said.

"Do I think this is a strong potential case, 'Absolutely,'" said Clayton. "I know it backwards and forward, and litigated with the proper attorneys could be won. It just depends on resources and who you're partnered with."

No one can provide more resources than the Department of Justice.

Of 1991: "They were there with their best people, and they were very very good," Clayton said. "They were, in my opinion, the key players in Garza."

The ACLU and MALDEF did not return phone calls seeking comment.

More Reading: Should L.A. County Supervisors Give Up Their Redistricting Power?

Daniel Watson is a graduate student at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which has partnered with KCET-TV to produce this blog about policy in Los Angeles.

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