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Pasadena voting rights trial update

Day One:

Pasadena City Council

The disparity in infrastructure is at the heart of a voting rights case that opened in federal court Thursday in which a group of Latino residents is challenging the city’s newly revised system of government, saying it discriminates against minority voters and intentionally dilutes their power.

By creating two at-large council seats and eliminating two of the eight district seats, the suit says, the city violated the federal Voting Rights Act, making it harder for Latino-backed candidates to get elected and leading to unfair allocation of resources.

“Filling a pothole is not a Democratic or Republican thing to do; neither is putting in a drainage ditch or a sidewalk,” said Nina Perales, one of a team of attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing voters. “The everyday business of a city – including maintaining the infrastructure – is not a partisan issue, and when a city council that operates almost exclusively in unison begins to divide over issues of resource allocation, that is not partisan.

“Here in Pasadena those divisions have everything to do with race,” she said, in an opening statement Thursday of the trial that will be decided not by jurors but by U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal.

Lawyers for the city, however, told the judge there were legitimate reasons to change the system of electing city council members.

Claude Robert Heath, a prominent defense lawyer experienced in redistricting law, said shifting two of the eight council seats to at-large positions did not diminish access or opportunity for Latinos, who make up about half the population. And he said the city would show that whites have not voted as a unified block in recent city races, but instead crossed over to back candidates Latino voters preferred.

[…]

MALDEF lawyers began their case before Rosenthal Thursday with data-heavy testimony from three expert witnesses: a demographer, a political scientist and a historian.

The demographer, David Ely, testified that Census data indicates Latinos in Pasadena have not achieved the same level of education as whites. They have a higher poverty rate and are likelier to live in overcrowded housing.

Next on the stand was Richard L. Engstrom, a visiting political science professor at Duke University, who is an expert in minority voting rights. Engstrom testified that the ballot measure changing the system of government passed because non-Latinos voted in a racially uniform block. He said 99.6 percent of Latinos voted “no” on the measure.

Under question by the city’s lawyers, Engstrom doubled down on his contention that the votes were not an aberration.

“Does racially polarized voting exist?” he asked, rhetorically. “In election after election after election after election, the choice of Latino voters is being eliminated as a result of non-Latino voters voting as a block.”

He later added, “Racially polarized voting exists and persists in Pasadena.”

Day Two:

It felt like a power grab in Pasadena, a Latino city councilman told the judge. Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated federal oversight for local elections, the mayor and a committee he’d appointed met behind closed doors to draw up a plan to reduce the voting power of Hispanics.

The testimony came on the second day in the federal trial of a closely watched voting rights case challenging how Pasadena elects its city council. The mayor took the stand for about an hour at the end of the day and is expected to testify at length after the Thanksgiving break.

But for most of Friday, Councilman Ornaldo Ybarra testified about the disparities in representation. Ybarra was not included in the closed door meeting, which had been scheduled to be open to the public. Ybarra said longtime Mayor Johnny Isbell approved of the gathering with police protecting the door. He said the mayor pushed the changes because he realized he no longer needed advance approval from the federal Justice Department to make revisions to the city charter.

[…]

Ybarra also said he heard secondhand accounts that the mayor and others were warning voters of “an invasion” of Hispanics in the city government: “It was all over Pasadena that if we didn’t adopt this 6-2 council, there was going to be too many Hispanics on council.”

A defense attorney questioned whether the four-term councilman was certain of what the mayor meant by “invasion.” The mayor had backed Ybarra’s candidacy when he first ran for council in 2009.

“Only the mayor and his creator know what his intent was, but the message and behavior were racially motivated,” he said.

Given the Thanksgiving holiday, the trial will likely wrap up next week. As noted, the plaintiffs have a tall order to prove discriminatory intent. It’s interesting that this trial is going on at the same time as the litigation over whether the voter ID law had discriminatory intent. I’d normally look at both of those as consequential cases with the potential to bring about a lot of change, but that would necessitate an Attorney General who isn’t a horrible racist. Rulings for the plaintiff in either or both cases would still be a big deal, just probably not as big as it could have been.

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