Kevin de Leon

State Sen. Kevin de Leon, the top ranking Latino legislator in California, speaks at a immigration rally last November in downtown Los Angeles. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

By Cathleen Decker
May 27, 2015

The U.S. Supreme Court’s unexpected decision to take up a Texas voting case poses perhaps the most acute threat in a generation to Latino political strength in California. But how much of the threat actually materializes is decidedly less known.

In a situation rife with questions, one of the most ironic is this: Have Latino politicians, whose success was helped along by supportive court actions decades ago, become so ubiquitous that they can succeed regardless of new court decisions that might otherwise lessen their strength?

The Texas case was brought by plaintiffs who want only citizens to be counted in the crafting of voting districts; currently, all residents are counted, which boosts the number of districts in places like Southern California. Were the plaintiffs to succeed, many urban districts would not retain enough viable constituents to exist on their own. The court’s decision, which covers state and local elections but could be expanded to include congressional districts, will not be announced until early next year.

Under the worst-case scenario for Latinos who hold huge sway over politics in California, a court decision siding with the plaintiffs could force multiple Latino districts to collapse together, or to be merged with areas dominated by other types of voters. In theory, that could force titanic clashes between existing Latino players — or between Latinos and other minority groups — with some of them falling aside.

In broad strokes, a judgment for the plaintiffs could move political power from California’s urban areas to its suburbs — spreading it from Los Angeles proper to suburban environs like Orange County and the Inland Empire where citizenship rates are higher. Power could also spread from noncitizen-heavy Southern California to Northern California.

“From the nonwhite, to the white,” said David Wasserman, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

But much remains up in the air, including the most obvious: both the direction of the court’s judgment and the breadth of it — how it might want constituents to be counted under any new arrangement.

If the court moves in a way that curbs Latino power, political strategists predict the same sort of backlash that greeted Republican efforts in 1994 to pass Proposition 187, the measure that would have blocked benefits to noncitizens. Anger over its passage is credited with a massive and continuing effort to register Latinos to vote — and vote Democratic. The result has been a near-gutting of Republican power in California.

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