Appeals Rules Against Santa Clara in Voting Rights Act Case

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.”

Come Together

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.

Power Shifts

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.

Janice Bitters is managing editor for Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @janicebitters.

10 Comments

  1. Interesting, these Santa Clara Democrats are acting like Republicans in trying to gerrymander the vote.

  2. “judge’s earlier ruling forcing the city to hold districted elections”

    Not a peep is heard from this Blue city, naturally, about judicial activism, even when it bites the Blue hand that has supported it for so long, or intentional racism and each group wanting a seat themselves for racial reasons.

  3. I for one want to see Santa Clara try its best to be exactly like San Jose, we need to spread out these homeless and mattresses! Maybe they can chase the rich off the tax rolls faster too and the unions will have to jack up sales tax to 30%.

    Victory!

  4. What I like about this ruling is that it will require more competition in the elections.

    Using “ranked” voting was always designed for voter engineering, in effect get rid of those who won’t vote for you using your office as a weapon.

    It was inherently a violation of voters rights from the beginning. You COULD buy enough votes to always get in a ranked position.

    I can’t wait until my city is required to do the same thing, we have 7 city council seats thus we will have 7 districts.

    Time to erase this crazy idea of local city council elections for good.

  5. “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.”

    Naturally people can be found who like judges replacing law with their whims, as in this example, because it makes them Feel Good. Be legitimate and pass an ordinance converting the city council from at-large to a district system. Go ahead and make it six districts since people prefer that over three, at least.

  6. > Using “ranked” voting was always designed for voter engineering, in effect get rid of those who won’t vote for you using your office as a weapon.

    > It was inherently a violation of voters rights from the beginning. You COULD buy enough votes to always get in a ranked position.

    Ranked voting has always seemed to me to be a sneaky and nefarious scheme for the election puppeteers to steer elections in their preferred direction.

    Combine that with “top two” primary elections, and myriad other shenanigans to engineer a “one-party” political system, and the end result is that “voters” have little to say in elections.

    Dominion Voting systems and the ability for a “man behind the curtain” to specify an explicit election outcome with a keyboard or an iPhone has finally made elections completely pointless.

    Just implant a microchip in everyone with their identity politics settings and hold elections by having Google mapping cars drive up and down the streets with remote scanners. Then count up the number of “oppressed marginalized minorities”, multiply by two, count up the number of people with a “white privilege” setting, divide by two, and presto — a California twenty-first century free and fair election.

  7. After they fire Brian Doyle, he and his stupid friend Churchwell will form a law firm with Sudney Powell.

  8. Very nice local reporting on the courts., Would push more on the 49er motives and public records that support them. Once saw the city of San Jose just lose records for a million dollar 49er donations designed for ” community outreach ” for more socioeconomically disadvantaged. Meaning they were going for the Raider fan base in the area, had little to do with voting. Jed York is part of the problem, not the golden money solution. He didn’t even pay his taxes on the stadium as promised, but throwing money at agenda!

  9. > . . . a million dollar 49er donations designed for ” community outreach ” for more socioeconomically disadvantaged. Meaning they were going for the Raider fan base in the area, . . .

    In a more innocent time, we might have considered this “cynical”.

    But, that was then, this is now.

    Today, we can accept it as “astute”.

    There’s probably a reason the Mercury News never noticed this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *