A court of appeals has ruled against the city of Santa Clara in its push to overturn a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge’s earlier ruling forcing the city to hold districted elections as officials try to regain control over how it holds elections in the future.
The ruling, published Wednesday, is the latest development in a years-long battle between Santa Clara city officials and a slew of minority groups over whether the city’s longstanding voting process dilutes minority votes in the city. In 2018, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle ruled that holding elections with six districts, rather than having every resident vote on every council member, would help even the playing field for minority voters.
California Appeals Court Judges Eugene Premo, Allison M. Danner and Franklin Elia agreed unanimously.
“We find no reversible error in the trial court’s interpretation of the governing legal principles and its application of the law to the evidence presented at trial,” the decision said.
The ruling Wednesday means the six districts for voting in City Council members remains for now and the groups who sued the city, including the Asian Law Alliance, can recoup their fees for the lawsuit.
“It’s up to the city to decide what they want to do, it’s kind of their move now,” Richard Konda, executive director for the Asian Law Alliance said in an interview Wednesday. “I’m hoping they see the wisdom to end the case at this point.”
Konda didn’t have the figures readily available Wednesday, but confirmed that Santa Clara is set to be on the hook to repay millions of dollars in legal fees over the suit and appeal. Before the appeal, the Asian Law Alliance had tallied more than $3 million in legal fees that the city is liable for reimbursing and that number has increased in the years since the original ruling.
As for what the city will do, more information on that will come in the new year, according to Lon Peterson, a spokesperson for Santa Clara.
“The City of Santa Clara is in receipt of the Court of Appeal’s decision and is in the process of reviewing it,” he said in a statement. “The Santa Clara City Council will convene in a closed-session meeting in January to review the Court’s decision. Until then, the City has no further comment.”
The appeal was filed initially because Santa Clara city officials disagreed with Judge Kuhnle’s original ruling, and claimed that no districts, or larger districts, would not disadvantage minority voters and that residents say they enjoy voting for city representatives. Santa Clara council members have since put two unsuccessful measures on ballots. One, known as Measure A in 2018, would have split the city into two districts. Measure C, voted down in March, would have divided Santa Clara into three parts.
In the meantime, the city has been forced to hold two City Council elections with six districts, in which residents in a specific area voted for representation for their neighborhoods.
The first time, in 2018, Raj Chahal won his bid for a council seat, breaking a long streak of nearly all-white representatives in Santa Clara. That became a proof-point for those who say districted elections are a good option to increase diversity.
In November, four seats were up for grabs on the City Council and two people of color, Suds Jain and Kevin Park, were voted into two of the seats. That further proved districted elections help increase diversity on the council, according to proponents of districted elections, including Konda and Chahal.
“I am really upset that we have lost more than $5 million,” Chahal said in an interview Wednesday, estimating the final costs of the lawsuit to the city. “But there were political motives in this thing, like not to lose the majority, and I hope the residents will hold them responsible for the bad decisions by the town leadership and bad advice given to them by the city officials.”
Chahal primarily holds City Attorney Brian Doyle and the councilmembers who voted to move ahead with the lawsuit responsible for the costs, he said. He would have preferred to accept Judge Kuhnle’s ruling and adopt the districts using a city ordinance.
Chahal could get his wish. The ruling comes less than two months after Jain and Park, along with newly elected councilmember Anthony Becker won seats on the City Council. The three, along with Harbir Bhatia who did not win her bid against incumbent Kathy Watanabe, were supported to the tune of about $3 million by a political fund set up by San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York. The NFL team is based in Santa Clara and manages the city's Levi's Stadium.
Despite those ties, the 49ers and city officials, including the longstanding City Council majority led by Mayor Lisa Gillmor, have had a strained relationship. The pair have been in a years-long, heated, tit-for-tat battle over everything from soccer fields to transparency, including how the more than $1 billion Levi's Stadium is managed, what a reasonable events curfew would look like and, most recently, politics.
Gillmor told San Jose Inside in October that the 49er's funding amounted to buying the election for councilmembers that would be more sympathetic to the team. But the three new councilmembers say they never asked for the 49ers help and aren't indebted to the team.
The 49ers claim its involvement in the latest election was in service to flipping the City Council majority to protect the voting rights of minorities in the city, a la the lawsuit and appeal over districted elections. The council contenders the team supported all support accepting Judge Kuhnle’s ruling to keep the city divided into six parts for future elections.
Santa Clara officials’ “misguided policies and incompetent legal advice have cost the citizens of Santa Clara millions of dollars in legal fees and damages,” Rahul Chandhok, a spokesperson for the team said in a statement to San Jose Inside. “They were wrong on the policy and wrong on the law, and the residents bear the costs of their mistakes—at a time when the City is struggling with massive budget deficits. Their unfortunate actions have created both a moral and fiscal debt.”
Read the full California Appeals Court decision here.