FRESNO — The sun was down and the streets of downtown Fresno were all but deserted Tuesday when United States District Court Judge Dale A. Drozd welcomed the attorneys in his courtroom to come back any time.
“Next time don’t bring me something so complex,” he said.
A lawsuit that could drastically change the face of Kern County supervisors’ political districts, and might pitch sitting supervisors against each other, wrapped up before Drozd after two and a half weeks of debate.
Drozd did not issue any conclusions from the bench and said he still has dramatic amounts of evidence to review, especially since attorneys only finalized the list of that evidence Tuesday afternoon.
The case challenges the supervisorial district boundaries that were drawn in 2011.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund claimed those current district boundaries were drawn in violation of the U.S. Voting Rights Act and asked the judge to order those boundaries changed before next year’s elections.
Supervisors, attorneys argued, deprived Latino voters of political power by failing to draw a second Latino-majority district despite the fact Latinos now make up half the county’s population.
“Our hope is that the judge understands that the (current) plan is in violation of the Voting Rights Act and he can’t allow another election to go forward,” said MALDEF attorney Denise Hulett. “I do think the judge senses urgency.”
Attorneys hired to defend the county said it was clear that the Kern County Board of Supervisors and their staff acted in good faith in 2011.
The county plan doesn’t violate the Voting Rights Act, they argued, but even if it did a new redistricting process will be held in 2021 using full census data. Doing it now would constitute a dramatic upheaval in county government and voters’ representation.
“What is the proper time, now or when we have real numbers?” said attorney Marguerite Leoni.
Hulett said the plaintiffs in the case, two Kern County Latinos, had already been forced to vote in three elections without their legal right to elect a candidate of their choice.
They shouldn’t have to wait through two more elections.
“A vague promise that (the county) will do it right next time isn’t enough,” she said.
2011 decision now questioned
The central claims in the MALDEF suit are tied to supervisors’ 2011 decision to prioritize eastern Kern County’s desire to have two supervisorial districts representing the northern and southern portions of the desert and mountain areas.
“The County chose instead to defer to the east, whose largely Anglo residents prefer to have two supervisors on the board, but who lack the population necessary to comprise one whole district, let alone two,” Hulett said on the opening day of the trial.
The map the county supervisors drew accomplished that end by having District One, which is led by a supervisor from Ridgecrest, grab the Latino-heavy communities of Delano, McFarland and Shafter.
But the move put Wasco, Lost Hills and other nearby westside Latino communities into Supervisorial District Four with Anglo-heavy Taft, Frazier Park and southwest Bakersfield.
“Plaintiffs will demonstrate that the 2011 districting plan dilutes the votes of Latino voters by depriving them of a second district in which they could constitute the majority of the eligible voters and from which they could elect a candidate of choice," Hulett said.
David Ely, a redistricting expert who testified on MALDEF’s behalf at the trial, created two maps that show a second Latino-majority district is possible to draw.
If MALDEF wins, the Kern County Board of Supervisors would not be forced to use the MALDEF maps to draw new districts, said MALDEF attorney Julia Gomez.
But they would be required to craft a second Latino-majority district somehow.
Another Latino-majority district?
Kern County attorney Christopher Skinnell argued, in opening statements, that MALDEF cannot create a large enough population of Latinos to constitute a second majority-minority district without serious mapping acrobatics.
He referred to two proposed maps presented for trial that show how the group proposes to create two Latino-majority districts.
Either they create a district that pulls in the northern Latino communities then swings around southwest Bakersfield to pick up people in Arvin or they swing around the north side of Bakersfield to pick up Latino populations in east Bakersfield, he argued.
And making the move would toss county supervisorial districts on their ear, removing whole groups of residents from their representatives and centralizing political power in Bakersfield — a violation of a historic county goal to spread representation across the 8,000 square miles of the county, Skinell said.
He also attacked the work of MALDEF experts that testified that Latinos have been historically discriminated against, that they vote coherently for Democrats and the demographics are right for two majority, minority districts.
Leoni argued that, of the five elections that MALDEF presented to prove that voting in Kern County was “racially polarized,” three weren’t polarized and the other two races had Latino candidates that weren’t truly viable.
Hulett attacked the county’s process for developing their boundaries, saying they were drawn without critical citizen voting age population information that would have shown whether a second Latino-majority district could be drawn.
It was clear, she said in her closing argument, that supervisors thought they only had to maintain the existing Latino-majority district — District 5 — to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
In his closing arguments, Skinell hammered hard on the point that nobody came to the board of supervisors and demanded that they connect either Arvin or east Bakersfield to the Latino communities of northwest Kern County to create a Latiino-majority district.
But Drozd showed some serious skepticism toward that approach.
Nobody from the public has the responsibility to come to the Kern County Board of Supervisors and tell them to follow the Voting Rights Act, he said.
And, Drozd said, it was clear the board didn’t understand the voting rights act because, as Hulett said, supervisors believed they only had to maintain District 5 as majority Latino to satisfy the Voting Rights Act.
“Sometimes public officials have obligations under the law to do things that aren’t even in their own interest,” he said.
While those questions and thoughts seemed to lean toward MALDEF’s case, Drozd stayed quiet while Skinell spent copious amounts of time laying out an intricate challenge to the expert testimony and data upon which MALDEF's claims of racial polarized voting were based.
And Hulett said she’s learned not to try to interpret the outcome of cases from a judge’s statements from the bench.
There was no indication when Drozd might issue a ruling on the case.