Modesto to high court: Strike voting rights act

Modesto on Monday urged the U.S. Supreme Court to accept its bid to strike a state voting law, arguing that rejecting the city's appeal could jeopardize thousands of local election systems throughout California.

The city is defending itself against a 2004 lawsuit filed by three Latino residents who claim Modesto's at-large City Council elections dilute voting power.

They want the city to adopt district elections, which require candidates to live in specific neighborhoods.

Modesto argued that it should not be forced to make that change because of the lawsuit, known as Sanchez vs. Modesto. The case hinges on the California Voting Rights Act, which the city contends is unconstitutional because it enables minorities to sue for election reforms solely on the basis of race.

On Sept. 11, lawyers for the Latino residents filed a petition with the high court arguing that it's too early for justices to hear the case.

They wrote that an advisory measure scheduled to appear on the November ballot could lead to the city adopting district elections, which would make the lawsuit irrelevant.

But the city countered that the advisory measure is not binding, and it would not strike the lawsuit's impact on Modesto.

If the justices deny the city's request, for example, the city likely would be forced to pay more than $1 million in legal fees incurred by the lawyers for the Latino residents.

The city's "petition should not be denied merely because Modesto is exploring what it will do if the (Supreme Court) review is not granted," wrote John McDermott, a Los Angeles attorney advising the city in the case.

The opposing sides characterize the California Voting Rights Act differently.

County judge sided with city

Robert Rubin, the attorney for the Latino residents, calls it an anti-discrimination measure intended to ensure equal voting power between different communities.

McDermott labels it "race-balancing legislation" that significantly lowers the threshold for lawsuits that demand election changes. He argues that it shifts the onus of those claims from a requirement that the minority group prove that it has lost elections because of a racial bias to a demonstration that racially polarized voting exists.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne sided with the city in the lawsuit in 2005, but California's 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno upheld the law and overturned Beauchesne's ruling in December. The state Supreme Court in March upheld the law by declining to hear the city's appeal.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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