Ruling gives Latinos more voting power in local elections. Appeals court strikes down at-large elections that discriminate

A major federal appeals court decision last week will expand Latino political empowerment. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled last week that at-large elections in Watsonville, Calif., are illegal and that the city must establish voting by district. By concentrating voting strength in one district, Latinos are more likely to be elected to public office. The decision is legally binding on nine western states.

Oscar Rios, a community organizer at the Cannery Workers' Center in Watsonville, predicts that the suit will spur voting rights activity throughout the Southwest. He notes that ``a lot of small- and medium-size towns have at-large elections, and no black or Chicano city council members.Now everyone will be filing suit or pressuring their local government to change.''

In Watsonville itself, he says ``for the first time I think a Chicano cannery worker can realistically run for city council.''

Denise Hulett, staff lawyer with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, says her group is analyzing voting data from ``hundreds of cities throughout California. We're planning future lawsuits.''

Court cases against at-large elections are currently pending in the California cities of San Diego, Stockton, Chula Vista, and National City, as well as towns in Texas and other Southwest states.

Located on the coast, 100 miles south of San Francisco, Watsonville has a population of 28,000, about 50 percent Latino. Until last year, no Latino had served as city council member and there has never been a Latino mayor.

In 1985 three Watsonville Chicanos (Mexican-Americans) filed suit in federal court charging that the city's at-large elections violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, a national statute that prohibits discriminatory voting procedures.

While lawyers prepared for trial in the case, about 1,000 mainly Latino workers at Watsonville Canning and Frozen Food Company waged a 19-month strike that quickly spilled into the political arena. The strike increased the momentum for Chicano political empowerment throughout the region.

When the case went to trial in 1987, however, a federal district court ruled in favor of Watsonville's at-large elections.

Last week the appeals court overturned that decision and ordered the lower court to devise a fair district election system.

The federal Voting Rights Act and a subsequent 1986 US Supreme Court decision Thornburg v. Gingles, established certain guidelines to determine if local electoral practices are unfair. The appeals court ruled that Watsonville's system was illegal because:

Latinos live in a geographically compact area sufficient to be the majority in at least one city council district;

Watsonville Latinos are politically cohesive, having a history of voting for Latino candidates. Whites vote as a block against those candidates;

There is a long history of official discrimination against Latinos in voting matters.

In an unusual part of the ruling, Judge Dorothy Nelson wrote extensively about the history of racism against Hispanics, although neither party had raised it in the appeal.

``Discrimination against Hispanics in California and the Southwest,'' Judge Nelson wrote, ``has pervaded nearly all aspects of public and private life. ... They have historically been the victims of violence, state-sanctioned segregation in schools and housing, Jim Crow practices, and job discrimination.''

This portion of the ruling particularly troubles Vincent Fontana, the lawyer representing Watsonville.

Mr. Fontana says the ruling will unfairly tilt the courts in favor of minority plaintiffs in voting rights and perhaps school desegregation cases.

Mr. Fontana says that the Watsonville city government is currently discussing whether to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

The law firm of McDermott, Will & Emery defends a number of cities facing similar voting rights suits. A lawyer at the firm who insisted on anonymity says, ``I don't think the ruling will have any impact on any other cities currently before the Ninth Circuit.''

He explains that San Diego and Stockton, Calif., for example, have district primaries and then hold at-large city elections. He says they do not have the same pattern of discrimination as Watsonville and believes their systems will be upheld as fair.

In Stockton, however, a judge has already issued a preliminary injunction against their electoral system, so no city elections can be scheduled until after the trial next January.

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