September 27, 2011 | Los Angeles Times | Original Article

Drawing fair district lines

On Tuesday, as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors makes a final decision on how to redraw the lines of the five supervisorial districts, it will have the opportunity to make history — or repeat it.

If the supervisors honor the Voting Rights Act and redraw boundary lines in a way that avoids diluting the voting strength of Latinos and gives them a meaningful opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, they will be the first board to act in accordance with the law since its passage in 1965. If not, they will repeat one of the most shameful chapters in Los Angeles County history.

From 1950 through 1990, successive Boards of Supervisors deliberately diluted the Latino vote to preserve incumbents' power. It was deliberate disenfranchisement, and the board's actions were in direct opposition to the purpose of redistricting.

Every single member of the current board is familiar with this history. I too am intimately familiar with it, because I helped litigate the Garza vs. County of Los Angeles case, which put a stop to it.

The Garza case, brought on behalf of an Arcadia woman, asserted that the boundaries for supervisorial districts had been deliberately drawn in Los Angeles County to dilute the Latino vote. The county maintained that it had not intentionally discriminated. But Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. In what I consider to be a key passage from the Garza decision, he explained beautifully what was wrong with the supervisors' reasoning:

"The lay reader may wonder if there can be intentional discrimination without an invidious motive. Indeed, there can. A simple example may help illustrate the point. Assume you are an Anglo homeowner who lives in an all-white neighborhood. Suppose also that you harbor no ill feelings toward minorities. Suppose further, however, that some of your neighbors persuade you that having an integrated neighborhood would lower property values and that you stand to lose a lot of money on your home. On the basis of that belief, you join a pact not to sell your house to minorities to keep the status quo. Have you engaged in intentional racial and ethnic discrimination? Of course you have. Your personal feelings toward minorities don't matter; what matters is that you intentionally took actions calculated to keep them out of your neighborhood."

Redistricting is a noble and original American ideal aimed at ensuring representative government. Arguably, it is unique among the world's political systems. At its heart, it is about access to power, and about whether that access is to be hoarded by one group or to be shared.

In some ways, redistricting is politically counterintuitive. Elected officials currently in office must, if they are being true to the spirit of the law, draw maps that may make it harder for them to stay in office. The principle of democracy — in which every citizen's voice carries the same weight — must come before self-interest.

As diverse groups grow in population, redistricting embraces a vision in which those who hold power voluntarily loosen their grip so that others, who do not, may gain a way in.

Unlike the state Legislature, whose district lines are now drawn by an independent commission, the five members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors still draw their own boundaries. So for them, the question of how to proceed is personal as well as political.

But when demographic changes warrant it, as they do now, they have no choice but to redistrict, and that may mean adding people from a given racial or ethnic group to their districts even if they see them as forming a voting bloc that could threaten their incumbencies.

These are the mandates of the U.S. Constitution and of the Voting Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Yet until the Garza case was decided in 1990, the laws hadn't been fully enforced in Los Angeles County. The very next year after the Garza decision, Gloria Molina was elected to the board, becoming the first Latino supervisor in more than a century.

I hope Los Angeles County is spared a repeat of the divisiveness I witnessed in 1990. But judging by the testimony I heard at a recent board meeting on redistricting, a majority of the supervisors are just as determined to maintain the status quo as they were 20 years ago.

The promise of redistricting is the promise of democracy, a democracy that was intentionally constructed by the framers of the Constitution to grow, adapt and become more inclusive.

The members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors have their chance Tuesday to show that they believe in this promise of democracy for everybody. It's their chance to make history, not repeat it.