Modesto Measure N seals fate of lawsuit

Modesto's vote this week to adopt district elections for City Council races signals the near end of a costly lawsuit demanding political reforms to benefit minority candidates.

The city spent more than $1.7 million fighting the lawsuit, which was filed in 2004 by three Latino residents who argued that citywide council races diluted the chances of minorities winning office.

Its last phase would have been a showdown in Stanislaus County Superior Court to determine whether racial polarization influenced Modesto's citywide council races.

But voters issued a verdict on district elections that made a jury's decision unnecessary, lawyers said Wednesday. The measure passed with 71 percent of the vote.

"It's really what the city's been saying all along. It belongs in the voters' hands, not in a court of law," City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood said.

Modesto fought the lawsuit for three years by trying to overturn the California Voting Rights Act, the law the residents used to press their case. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Modesto's argument last fall, a decision that upheld the voting law and marked victory for the Latino group.

But the high court's decision didn't resolve the lawsuit.

Instead, it meant that the Latinos would get a chance to prove their charge under the voting law in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

Attorney Robert Rubin, who represents the plaintiffs, said that step most likely won't be necessary now that voters have approved district elections.

He said he would keep a close eye on how the city draws boundaries for the six council districts called for in Measure N. The City Council is expected to appoint nine people to a district- drawing commission within two months. Three council seats are lined up to shift to districts by 2009, with the other three following in 2011.

"That is where the rubber meets the road, the actual drawing of the lines," said Rubin, legal director for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Rubin said it would be important to ensure representation for south and west Modesto. Council members typically live in central and east Modesto.

One question remains in the lawsuit: how much Rubin will be paid.

Last year, Rubin said his fees totaled more than $1 million before the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. His clients' success there meant the city likely would be responsible for those charges.

Rubin said negotiations on his fees were suspended while the city awaited Tuesday's vote on district elections.

His firm also sued Modesto and Stanislaus County to demand improvements to county pockets in south and west Modesto. A federal judge dismissed most of that lawsuit's claims last year, but Rubin has appealed the decisions.

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

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