Three Modesto Latinos can use a 2001 state voting law to press for city election reforms in Stanislaus County Superior Court, the California Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The court's decision allows Emma Pinedo, Enrique Sanchez and Salvador Vera to pursue their claim that racially polarized voting patterns in Modesto dilute the power of minorities at the polls.
The ruling goes against Modesto's bid to protect the city's charter — its constitution — which requires that election reforms go before voters.
John McDermott, a private attorney representing the city in the case, said he would advise the City Council to appeal the state court's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. He declined to comment further.
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Robert Rubin, a San Francisco civil rights attorney representing the Modesto residents, said the city would be better off complying with the court's decision.
"It certainly appears that the handwriting is on the wall, and a needless appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court just doesn't seem like a proper use of taxpayer resources," Rubin said.
He and his clients are urging Modesto to replace its at-large council elections with district races that require candidates to live in designated neighborhoods.
They argue that district races would knock down some of the barriers that work against Latino council candidates, such as the cost of running a citywide campaign. Only one Latino — Balvino Irizarry — has won a council election in nearly 100years.
Rubin's clients filed their claim three years ago under the state's Voting Rights Act of 2001, which allows groups to push for election changes in state courts.
The city contends that the law is unconstitutional and that it violates U.S. Supreme Court rulings that prohibit racial preferences.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne sided with Modesto in 2005.
The state's 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno overturned Beauchesne's decision in December. The City Council in January voted to appeal that ruling, with several members arguing that they wanted to protect the city's charter.
The state Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the Fresno court's ruling by declining to hear the city's appeal.
The lawsuit, known as San-chez v. Modesto, represents one of three courses that could lead to district elections.
Another centers on discussions at the city's Charter Review Committee, an 11-person group appointed by the council to recommend improvements to Modesto government. It considered district elections at several meetings over the past month.
The committee is expected to write a report in the spring that could influence whether the council places a measure on the November ballot to implement district elections.
The third course is an initiative campaign led by former Mayor Carmen Sabatino. He and Modestans for Fair District Elections are working to get an initiative on the ballot in 2008.
Modesto voters rejected an initiative that would have implemented district elections in 2001.
The city's seven council members live east of Highway 99; five live east of McHenry Avenue.
Of the 14 cities in California with populations larger than Modesto's 207,000, only two — Anaheim and Chula Vista — use at-large elections.
Most smaller communities use at-large elections, but a few have district races. Some, such as Dinuba in Tulare County, adopted district elections because of lawsuits that alleged citywide races disenfranchised minority voters.