California’s high court upholds voting rights law
From CalMatters state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal:
It was a case that some said threatened to erode California’s voting rights law. But after a ruling by the state’s Supreme Court on Thursday, some of its protections are reaffirmed, for now.
The case, filed by the Pico Neighborhood Association and others in 2016, alleged that Santa Monica’s at-large voting system for city council violates the California Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of the Latino community, which at the time made up 14% of its voting-age population. Instead of council members being elected citywide, the plaintiffs want the city divided into districts, and voters in each one to pick their representative.
On Thursday, California’s high court unanimously ruled that was a mistake — that the appeals court had “misconstrued” the California Voting Rights Act. Justice Kelli Evans, writing for the six other justices, said that plaintiffs only have to prove racially polarized voting in an at-large system — not that minority voters would make up a majority or near-majority of a hypothetical district.
- Pico Neighborhood Association, in a statement: “The at-large election system in Santa Monica has marginalized the Pico Neighborhood and its diverse residents for far too long.”
While U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla of California supported the association, the League of California Cities and the Special Districts Association filed briefs backing the city. So did a coalition including the League of Women Voters of Santa Monica and the Alliance of Santa Monica Latino and Black Voters, arguing that the city has “achieved significant success in ensuring voting power for Latino and Black voters” under the at-large system.
The case now goes back to the appeals court for further consideration. The city of Santa Monica said it was “reviewing the Supreme Court’s opinion and working to assess the path forward.” The association urged city officials to “settle the case quickly” and not spend taxpayer money on more litigation that “would be much better spent addressing the city’s many public safety and community services needs.”
Under the 2001 state voting rights act, minority groups gained greater leverage to challenge at-large elections that might dilute their voting power. At least 185 cities and nearly 400 other California jurisdictions have switched to district-based elections, according to the League of California Cities.
- Kevin Shenkman, who represented the association and has filed dozens of lawsuits against cities regarding at-large elections: “There are some places that were waiting to see what the California Supreme Court would do and what they would say in this Santa Monica case, and so now they will have those answers.”
The affirmation of the state’s law is in contrast to court rulings on the federal Voting Rights Act — which have weakened protections over the last ten years.
Speaking of crucial court cases: On Wednesday, protesters gathered outside the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to show their support, or opposition, to an upcoming ruling that would either uphold or cease a previous court order that currently bars the city from removing homeless encampments unless it can provide housing options.
The appeals court is hearing arguments from city officials and advocates for homeless people over whether San Francisco is actually complying with the court order and developing an adequate number of homeless shelters. But advocates say the city is not providing enough housing and criminalizing homelessness.
In response to the case, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he is sending an additional $38 million to help local communities clean up encampments, saying that judges across the country hand down decisions that “paralyze” local government’s ability to address homelessness.
- Newsom, in a statement: “In California, we are cutting red tape and making unprecedented investments to address homelessness, but with each hard-fought step forward, the courts are creating costly delays that slow progress.”
Other Stories You Should Know
1 Crunch time for bills in Legislature
With three weeks left before the session ends on Sept. 14, the Legislature is busy deciding the fate of bills. Some are on their way to becoming law, others are being proposed at the 11th hour and still others are in danger of being shelved.
Bills the Assembly sent to Gov. Newsom’s desk on Thursday:
- Senate Bill 385: Allow some physician assistants, who have completed training, to perform first-trimester abortions.
- SB 505: Require California’s FAIR Plan (a state-run property insurance plan that offers limited coverage) to develop a clearinghouse for commercial policies.
A bill given permission to move forward:
- SB 799: Originally about prison visitation, this measure has been gutted and amended to enable workers who have been on strike for more than two weeks to receive unemployment benefits. Led by Democratic Sen. Anthony Portantino of Glendale and supported by the California Labor Federation, the measure was granted on Thursday a rules waiver to proceed through the Assembly. It is strongly opposed by business groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, which on Thursday added it to its typically effective “job killer” list.
Bills that the Assembly Appropriations Committee put in the suspense file on Wednesday:
- SB 43: Expand the definition of “gravely disabled” and allow more people to be admitted into mental health conservatorships.
- SB 74: Ban TikTok and other social media apps controlled by a “country of concern” from state phones and devices.
- SB 309: Guarantee right to religious clothing for prisoners.
- SB 487: Shield abortion providers from civil actions from other states where abortion is prohibited.
- SB 627: Requires large retail chains to give 60 days’ notice of closings, and grant transfer opportunities for employees.
- SB 673: Create an “Ebony Alert” for missing Black youth.
- SB 729: Require health insurers to cover infertility and fertility treatment.
- SB 760: Require schools to provide an all-gender restroom option.
Speaking of bills: Opposition to two climate-related bills were in the spotlight this week. Following a state Capitol event on Wednesday promoting a bill that would require large corporations to disclose greenhouse gas emissions, the Chamber of Commerce issued a statement criticizing the bill. Calling the bill “onerous,” particularly for small businesses, the lobby group noted that some of the data businesses must submit about “indirect emissions” will be “inherently flawed and unreliable.”
And on Tuesday, Nicole Musicco, the chief information officer for the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, spoke about SB 252, a two-year bill that would force California’s huge public pension funds to sell off their holdings in fossil fuel companies. CalPERS opposes the bill, and during the interview with Bloomberg, Musicco said the agency would “have to divest immediately from fossil fuels.”
This prompted the advocacy group Fossil Free California to issue a “correction” on Musicco’s behalf, saying that the bill actually provides CalPERs as long as 14 years to optimally divest.
2 Newsom, Bonta warn schools
As schools across California return from summer break, public officials are focusing on diversity amid culture wars infiltrating classrooms.
Gov. Newsom and Brooks Allen, the state’s board of education executive director, sent a letter to public schools on Wednesday, reminding them of the board’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. In 2021, the governor signed a law that requires high schools to offer ethnic studies courses starting in the 2025-26 school year, and that requires students to complete the courses to graduate, starting with the class of 2030.
The model is based on curricula from traditional courses in African American, Native American, Asian/Pacific Islander American and Latinx American studies, though schools have the ability to integrate lessons from other communities.
- The letter: “The focus on the experiences of these four disciplines provides an opportunity for students to learn of the histories, cultures, struggles, and contributions to American society of these historically marginalized peoples…. all Californian students should see themselves, their classmates, and their community stories reflected in their education.”
The letter also reiterates that materials for ethnic studies courses should not promote discrimination nor any “religious doctrine.”
Meanwhile, Attorney General Rob Bonta gave notice to the Temecula Valley Unified School District board that its Tuesday approval of a policy that requires school staff to notify parents if a student requests to identify as a different gender is “detrimental to the well-being of LGBTQ+ students.”
- Bonta: “The rise in school districts adopting policies that target California’s vulnerable LGBTQ+ student population is of grave concern. My office is closely monitoring the situation…. We will remain committed to ensuring school policies do not violate students’ civil rights.”
Conservative advocates and school board members elected through the state, at times supported by GOP’s “Parent Revolt” program, have been increasingly butting heads with Democratic politicians against policies they argue strip away “parental rights.” Temecula Valley Unified’s policy is similar to ones recently passed by Chino Valley Unified and Murrieta Valley Unified. The Temecula board also came under fire in June when it banned elementary textbooks over a mention of gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk. After threats of a $1.5 million fine from the governor, the board reversed course.
3 State announces hospital loans
For the 17 California hospitals struggling to keep their doors open, the help couldn’t have come soon enough.
On Thursday, Gov. Newsom announced that the 17 hospitals will receive help through the state’s $300 million, interest-free loan program. California set up this lifeline in response to the number of hospitals, particularly those serving rural communities, that have closed or are close to shutting down due to rising costs and staffing shortages.
As CalMatters’ health reporter Ana B. Ibarra explains, one of these hospitals is Madera Community Hospital, which will receive $52 million from the loan program (though it wanted $80 million). Located in the San Joaquin Valley and closed since January, the hospital needed the loan to advance its management agreement with Adventist Health, a private health system, in hopes of reopening in the next few months.
- State Sen. Anna Caballero, a Democrat whose district includes Madera County, in a statement: “It brings me tremendous relief to know that Madera Community Hospital… (has) received grant awards and will be able to ensure that people can once again receive services in their own communities. When seconds mean the difference between life and death, we cannot afford to have hospitals closed.”
Two views on hydrogen fuel as an energy solution for California:
A hydrogen economy would involve serious risks, and may not actually help the climate, writes Amanda McKay, policy manager for Pipeline Safety Trust.
The lack of infrastructure is preventing hydrogen fuel from becoming a real alternative, writes Gregg Fishman, a member of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District board of directors (though his own opinion).
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