banc decision in Nipper v. Smith, No. 92-2588, 1994 WL 642754 (11th Cir. Dec. 2, 1994), in which black voters and an association of black attorneys contended that the use of at-large elections in trial court jurisdictions diluted the voting strength of the black minority in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1973(a). The court found that plaintiffs had established vote dilution, but that none of the remedies sought provided an objectively reasonable and workable solution to the vote dilution and that they would actually undermine the court's ability to administer justice. Id. at *47-51. The proposed remedies included alternatives of electoral subdistricts and the creation of new circuits which would contain sufficient black voters to enable them to elect a candidate of their choice.
In the present case, the court is not faced with deciding whether a voting scheme violates Section 2. It is presented with the problem of what interim solution should be implemented pending the legislative enactment of a precleared voting plan. Evidence has been offered that Latino voters have had their voting strength diluted and, therefore, a special election under an at-large system would probably preclude them from electing any judge of their choice. On the other hand, persuasive evidence has not been offered that the court's ability to administer justice would be undermined by the two alternatives under consideration. The court, however, acknowledges that ultimately an at-large system or a system different from either of the two proposed alternatives may prove, under the totality of circumstances, to be the best judicial election scheme.
The prohibition against dividing a city into more than one district is set forth in Article VI, Section 5(a) of the California Constitution which provides in part: "Each county shall be divided into municipal court and justice court districts as provided by statute, but a city may not be divided into more than one district."
The State's interest in preventing the division of cities does not appear to reflect any compelling state policy. In fact, the City of San Diego has been specifically authorized to divide cities if "the Legislature determines that unusual geographic conditions warrant such division." Cal. Const. art. VI, § 5(b). However, the creation of a multidistrict plan in Monterey County would require substantial administrative changes which would necessarily include reassignment of personnel, setting up new administrative procedures and the like. Further, these changes might be in effect for only the time period preceding the adoption of a permanent precleared plan. The court, therefore, finds that while a one-time, temporary suspension of the application of the city splitting prohibition would not interfere with a compelling state interest, implementation of a temporary multidistrict municipal court district plan would significantly interfere with the County's ability to provide uninterrupted efficient and effective delivery of municipal court services.
The proposed division plan allows the County to continue administratively operating the municipal courts in the county as it currently does. The problem, of course, is that the plan involves a separation of the electoral and jurisdictional bases of municipal court judges. Article VI, Section 16 provides that "judges of [municipal] courts shall be elected in their counties or districts at general elections." Therefore, this division or election area plan denies residents of the Monterey County Municipal Court District the right to vote for some of the judges in the county-wide district. At first glance, this would seem to constitute a substantial intrusion on state interests. As the State points out, historically, municipal and small claims courts have been intended to be responsive to the ordinary affairs of the citizens of their districts.
Several courts have noted that linkage between electoral and jurisdictional bases is a recognized state interest: "The overwhelming preservation of linkage in states that elect their trial court judges demonstrates that district-wide elections are integral to the judicial office and not simply another electoral alternative." League of United Latin American Citizens v. Clements, 999 F.2d 831, 872 (5th Cir. 1993); see also Nipper v. Smith, 1994 WL 642754 at *47-51.
However, on closer analysis the intrusion on state law does not seem as substantial as it initially appears. The process of municipal courts extends throughout the state, Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 84, and, therefore, the jurisdiction of a municipal court judge extends outside the geographic limits of the judge's district. In addition, Article VI, Section 15 of the California Constitution provides that "[a] judge eligible for municipal court service may be assigned by the Chief Justice to serve on any court." This provision authorizes the Chief Justice to assign municipal court judges from one municipal court district to serve in other municipal court districts. Sometimes the Chief Justice issues "blanket assignments." As noted in the 1994 Annual Report of the Judicial Council of California:
Blanket (within county) and reciprocal (between counties) assignments are issued each year by the Chief Justice to permit judges of one court to sit as judges of another court within their county or in a neighboring county. A total of 193 blanket assignments and 73 reciprocal assignments were issued during fiscal year 1992-93.
Judicial Council Report at 167.
These facts show that in practice the rights of nonresidents are often judged by resident judges. Also, nonresident judges are frequently assigned to other districts. Therefore, as a practical matter, linkage between a judge's electoral and jurisdictional bases cannot be considered an overwhelmingly strong public policy. The district court in Cousin v. McWherter, 840 F. Supp. 1210, 1220 (E.D. Tenn. 1994) so recognized in holding that the use of a single, at-large district for election of voters violated the Voting Rights Act:
The Court finds that this policy underlying the practice of county wide election for judges is tenuous if a totality of circumstances test is utilized. Any voter in any number of different situations may be subjected to the jurisdiction of a judge for which they had no opportunity to vote such as a federal judge, or a judge in another county or another state. Judges routinely respond to litigants who will not have the opportunity to vote for the judge in an election. There is never a guarantee that jurisdiction and electorate will be coextensive.