Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Santa Clara's $5.8 Million CVRA Lawsuit and the Delusions Behind It

 With Santa Clara's voting rights lawsuit finally settled, I looked back at more than 10 years of reporting on this issue from the first warning letter the city got from civil rights attorney Robert Rubin in 2011.   

In that jaunt down memory lane, I looked at some notes from the trial in 2018 that never found their way completely into any of my reporting — for space reasons, largely, but also because it might give critics pretext for dismissing our reporting as character assassination.

It's an exchange between Doyle and Judge Kuhnle about whether or not the California Voting Rights Act applies to charter cities. (An appeals court in the Palmdale case ruled that the answer is 'yes, it does.' ) 

In retrospect, it seems like the character — Santa Clara City Attorney Brian Doyle — did all the assassinating himself. 

I regret not publishing the transcript, because this few minutes of conversation captures the delusional thinking that led the City to the worst of all possible decisions every step of the way in the ten year slog to paying out $5.8 million.

Doyle seemed to try to re-litigate the case at the end of an award hearing, which is peculiar — I'm no lawyer but I know better than to argue with a judge about a ruling in a hearing about an entirely different matter.

Here's the annotated transcript:

Doyle: I'd like to remind the court of the city's situation. This case began with the 2011 letter [from Rubin]. I've tried to explain my dilemma. Santa Clara is a charter city. I have to act in accordance with the charter. [for the city council to change the city's election system] they had to adopt a resolution that some members of the city council had been elected with racially polarized voting…asking me to move outside the charter was impossible. 

 

Therefore, we instituted the charter review committee. [the plaintiffs] instead of joining us in an effort to satisfy [plaintiff's] concerns, they opposed this charter amendment [the failed Measure A for multi-member dustructs]. At what point was the City of Santa Clara to violate its charter to satisfy his [Rubin's] demands…At every single stage I have tried to respect the charter. I think the state made a mistake [in Palmdale].

 

Kuhnle: Wasn't that issue resolved 100 percent long ago…You don't think it's correct? Are you saying this court should ignore binding authority [appellate court decisions]? I'm assuming you did not advise [your client to do so]. You did regard it as your job [to advise your client of the law]? 

 

Doyle:  We don't agree with your position

 

Kuhnle: It's not my position…It's my job to uphold the laws of California including appellate court decisions.

 

Doyle: I don't necessarily agree

 

Kuhnle: When a state court of appeal rules, that's binding on all courts…I'm not arguing with you. I'm stating the facts. Your position is that Palmdale is not binding…You, too, have to uphold the laws of California. You feel that you're not bound by appellate court decisions. I find that an unusual view. 

 

[City's outside counsel] Steve Churchwell: He's not [dismissing] Palmdale… he's saying that he can't tell the city council to do this by resolution. We [charter cities] can't do anything in 30 days, we need at least six months…[back on the subject of the award] There's no damages. What they're calling a settlement is selling the city down the river. Was there any real attempt to settle? No.

Kuhnle: Reasonableness of settlements are not among the Serrano factors [for deciding awards]…I do recall there being a discussion about whether the parties [here] might find a settlement...The back and forth is very interesting but I'm not sure it bears on what's before us today. What I had to do was apply Palmdale.


Doyle: I was trying to explain my position.

 

Kuhnle: I don't want to get lost in matters not before the court.

 

Rubin: The  2011 letter was [written] without any expectation of attorney's fees. [A remedy] did not happen in 2012. It did not happen in 2015 or 2016. There was plenty of time. They [the city] controlled the trajectory of litigation at every stage. 

 

Kuhnle: Attorney fees raises the issue that litigation is very costly. Mr. Doyle disagrees on how the city responds to it …the CVRA applies to charter cities according to the appellate court. 

 

This wasn't the case that was argued at trial, however.  Churchwell focused on whether or not 85 percent confidence level in statistics was enough to prove Santa Clara's election system discriminated against minorities. The appeal was even more picayune — the definition of "usually."  (Neither of these specious argument successfully distracted from the plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face fact that no minority was ever elected to the City Council.)


It seems that these were small-bore questions compared to the one Doyle really and truly wanted to argue, which appeared to be the inviolable right of charter cities to contravene state law. The City's first briefs also included arguments about the CVRA violating the 14th amendment — a question the federal Supreme Court has twice refused to consider, but think of the glory of appearing before that august body.


The picture is Walter Mitty arguing Brown v Board of Education just before he gets run over in the middle of the street by a bus.


 Did I mention Doyle's salary is about $350,000? Churchwell banked nearly $1.5 million. That's some costly delusional thinking.

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