Supreme Court rejects challenge to California Voting Rights Act

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a petition to review the case of Higginson v. City of Poway, which challenges a California law that resulted in Solana Beach and many other cities switching from at-large elections to council districts.

Solana Beach Mayor Jewel Edson said via text that the city believes the denial “was just a matter of the numbers.”

The Supreme Court received a petition for certiorari in April from attorneys representing Don Higginson, a former Poway mayor who alleged that the city of Poway’s switch from at-large to district elections in City Council elections was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court accepts about 80 cases out of more than 7,000 cases that it is asked to review each year, according to the court’s website.

“Denial of a Petition for Certiorari is not a decision on the merits,” Edson said.

Higginson’s original lawsuit, which lists the city of Poway and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as defendants, was filed in October 2017. It alleges that the California Voting Rights Act violates legal precedent that says an at-large voting system is unconstitutional only if certain criteria, such as proof that a minority group is large enough to form a viable district in a given area, is met.

Solana Beach and several other cities submitted an amicus brief, filed by those who are not parties in a lawsuit but have relevant information to add, to the Supreme Court.

The first district-based elections for City Council seats in Solana Beach will be held this November. Two years ago, the city approved an ordinance to switch from at-large seats to four council districts and a separately elected mayor in response to a letter by attorney Kevin Shenkman. Shenkman alleged that Solana Beach’s at-large elections, in which the whole city votes for every council seat, violated the California Voting Rights Act by diluting the Latino vote.

To avoid a potentially expensive lawsuit, Solana Beach and other cities that received the same letter switched to district-based elections. But the city also included a sunset provision to switch back to at-large elections if the California Voting Rights Act is determined to be unconstitutional.

According to the amicus brief, a majority Latino district in Solana Beach isn’t possible. Solana Beach and other cities in the same situation object to the way the California Voting Rights Act lowers the bar for minority groups to prove that their votes are diluted in at-large elections.

Previously established legal precedent, including the 1986 Thornburg v. Gingles case heard by the Supreme Court, established a more stringent set of criteria for proving votes are being diluted based on race.

“For several election cycles, Latinas have been elected and re-elected to the [Solana Beach] Council, and in the 2018 elections, using the at-large system, a third Latina was elected,” the amicus brief said.

An attorney representing Higginson did not respond to a request for comment by press time.


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