Two civil rights lawsuits in Stanislaus County bring kudos, criticism

Few blame the poor or downtrodden for wanting to improve their lot in life.

But when they lawyer up, that's something else. And when their attorneys swoop in from The City, demand big change and cost taxpayers several millions of dollars, that's something else again.

People might not realize that agencies up and down California are looking at Modesto, whispering and pointing fingers, wondering how two civil rights test cases here might affect them. Some say they too have fallen victim to big-city lawyers emboldened by Modesto's loss.

Some Latino leaders, however, see the San Francisco lawyers as heroes, similar to out-of-town civil rights activists who took on Deep South injustice in the 1960s. Finally, they say, after decades of neglect, someone with the law on his side championed Modesto's overlooked and underserved.

And won.

"Do not fault them," said Armando Flores, a Modesto attorney. "They are willing to spend time and resources to advocate for causes you would think are lost causes."

But righting society's wrongs comes with a price, and steps in the right direction don't always produce desired results. The downsides weigh heavily in landmark lawsuits against Modesto and Stanislaus County, which have cost taxpayers $8.3 million and counting, and have not produced more minority office holders or new sidewalks or better storm drains.

"Folks are electing people to make decisions, but these lawyers come in and change the situation," said Modesto City Councilman Dave Lopez, a Latino elected before the city was carved into geographic districts. "I'm not a big

fan. I don't think it's constructive to the city."

Outgoing Councilman Will O'Bryant compared the lawyers to "ambulance chasers" stirring a pot in hopes of a big payout.

Yamilet Valladolid, site supervisor for Modesto-based El Concilio, a Latino advocacy group, said: "Everyone deserves to have a safe environment, regardless of race or social status. If it takes a lawsuit to make that happen, so be it."

One lawsuit still in federal court

At issue are a pair of discrimination lawsuits, both filed in 2004 on behalf of local Latinos by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

The first sought to boost minority representation on the Modesto City Council by imposing district elections, while the second says biased policies are holding down neighborhoods heavily populated by Latinos.

In October 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Modesto's appeal on the voting rights lawsuit, and city voters agreed to switch to district elections four months later. The second lawsuit still is winding its way through federal courts.

Guiding both lawsuits is Robert Rubin, whose résumé includes references to President Bill Clinton's transition team in 1992 and earlier legal work for the American Civil Liberties Union in race-torn Mississippi before landing in San Francisco in 1981. The Lawyers' Committee, loosely affili- ated with a national civil rights group with a similar name, set up shop in the Bay Area in 1963 and often represents immigrants, minorities and the homeless.

Rubin steers talk of his work toward his clients. "These are folks who know that challenging the local political power structures is not going to make them popular," he said in a recent interview. "These are folks in many cases who have been told throughout their lives that the way to get by is to keep your head down, your nose clean and your mouth shut. Yet they're standing up and saying, 'All we want is a fair share.' "

People such as Juan and Magdalena Mercado. Their children navigate around puddles during rainy season because their unincorporated south Modesto neighborhood has no sidewalks.

"I almost ran into a woman with three kids in a stroller (while driving)," Juan Mercado said. "People walk in the street and it's not a safe place. It was almost sundown and I didn't see them."

Neighbors complained for years, he said, before activist Miguel Donoso hooked them up with the Lawyers' Committee.

Lawyer wrote law, fights cases

Rubin wrote much of the California Voting Rights Act, the 2002 law passed by the Legislature that was the basis for the Modesto district elections lawsuit. The law makes it much easier for minority groups to sue for voting reforms and promotes district elections as a remedy.

Rubin bristles at the suggestion that he's profited from the law he helped write by prosecuting local governments arbitrarily. He said Donoso walked into his office nearly a year before Rubin formally called out City Hall. Donoso was instrumental in both lawsuits, Rubin said.

Mercado backed up that version. Donoso, 71, who finished last among five candidates running for an open council seat in 2001, is with family in his native Peru and was unavailable for comment, an associate said.

Donoso has picketed City Hall and The Bee on other occasions on behalf of Latino issues and has organized neighborhood cleanups and anti-gang protests.

There is "nothing new or suspicious" about civil rights attorneys lobbying for legislation and then going out on a limb to champion related cases, said Stanford law Professor Pam Karlan, a voting rights scholar, in a recent blog post.

She recalled other disenfranchised plaintiffs "who had simply not known, until we showed up, that there were effective legal tools for challenging election rules" stacked against minorities. "The idea ... that minority voters were entirely happy until 'outside agitators' came in and riled them up is almost certainly false," Karlan said.

An Associated Press report last month noted that proceeds from all settlements stemming from California Voting Rights Act lawsuits are traced to Rubin and Joaquin Avila, a Seattle law professor who helped him write the statute. Avila is a co-counsel in the Modesto voting case, as is Brian Brosnahan, another Bay Area attorney.

Rubin's awards go to the Lawyers' Committee, a nonprofit organization, he asserted.

"I don't see a dime of that," Rubin said. "There are no summer condos or BMWs on my portfolio. It's a bit disturbing to spend my entire career working for nonprofits, then be told, 'You're enriching yourself off attorneys' fees.' "

IRS tax returns show Rubin's salary at $121,648 in December 2007, the latest form available to the public. The Lawyers' Committee received $8 million over the previous four years, most from contributions.

But cash-strapped San Joaquin Valley agencies are feeling the sting of Rubin's legal threats.

Fight depletes infrastructure funds

City Council members in Modesto settled the voting rights lawsuit by agreeing to pay the Lawyers' Committee $3 million after Modesto voters accepted a switch to district elections in February 2008. That doesn't include an additional $1.4 million the city spent on outside legal counsel, experts and other costs.

The city has spent $2.17 million defending its portion of the ongoing second case, which claims that Modesto and Stanislaus County policies have prevented unincorporated, largely Latino neighborhoods from annexing to the city and receiving better serv- ices, including more efficient emergency response.

The county has defended itself in the case by arguing that it has plans to fund tens of millions of dollars worth of improvements to similar unincorporated neighborhoods and that it is working through them as money becomes available. The county further argues that the conditions at the center of the lawsuit existed decades ago, when the neighborhoods primarily were inhabited by whites.

The county's costs in that case have reached $1.75 million, said Deputy County Counsel Dean Wright. That brings local taxpayers' total bill to $8.32 million.

For every million dollars paid out, "that's a million less we have to spend on infrastructure needs," County Counsel John Doering said.

Madera Unified School District officials were incensed at receiving a $1.2 million bill for attorneys' fees after having caved to Lawyers' Committee threats. Having seen Modesto's $3 million payout, Madera trustees switched to district elections.

"Once notified, you'd better change or you could end up being in a financial world of hurt. Modesto is a perfect example," said Madera schools spokesman Jake Bragonier. "In times like these, I don't know that that makes you too much of a hero."

After forming districts and holding elections, Madera added a Latino trustee and now has three, plus three whites and one who is black.

By the summer of 2008, Rubin's firm had sent letters to more than 20 school boards and local government bodies urging them to adopt district elections under the state voting law. Rubin hasn't said exactly how he chooses which agencies to press for election reforms, but many of the targets have been San Joaquin Valley communities with relatively high percentages of Latino voters.

Ceres learned from Modesto's loss

Ceres schools put up virtually no fight after receiving a warning letter in September 2008 and switched to district elections by this November's election, with a much different result. "We did not want to spend $3 million like Modesto," said former trustee Teresa Guerrero.

Ceres' legal bill was less than $2,000, she said. But when November ballots were counted, the board, with a heav- ily Latino constituency, became less diverse when a white challenger easily beat Guerrero in a story with racial overtones.

Though Ceres Unified School District policy directs that new schools be named for local standouts, the board raised hackles with a spring decision to honor Latino activist César Chávez instead. The district in which Guerrero lives sprawls over farmland where conservative owners remember the polarizing Chávez with disdain.

Guerrero, executive director for the nonprofit Parent Institute for Quality Education in Modesto, strongly backs increasing chances for minority representation, she said, while recoiling at the threat of a civil rights lawsuit aimed at the relatively diverse school board. In the end, the effort "backfired," she said.

As a result, a school board in which three of seven members were Latinos now has two Latinos.

Status quo?

In Modesto, the city's multimillion-dollar test-case stand ended in an electoral status quo.

A committee crafted District 2 with Latino and Democratic majorities among registered voters in south and west Modesto. But when the ballots were counted last month, Dave Geer, a white Republican with deep roots in the neighborhood, captured nearly 57 percent of votes to beat Al Nava.

Nava grew up in south Modesto and Ceres, but hadn't been particularly active in neighborhood issues before leaving the Navy last year. He didn't secure endorsements from Latino community groups that might have helped in his race against Geer.

"Change doesn't happen overnight," Rubin said. "You can't expect a community locked out of power for decades to have a waiting cadre of political candidates skilled to run a sophisticated campaign. It's going to take some time."

Balvino Irizarry, having served a single term ending in 1991, was the Modesto council's only Latino member since 1911 until Lopez's election two years ago, and Irizarry's mailing business is active in local campaigns.

"The Latino community has a long way to go," Irizarry said. "It has some real problems when it comes to nourishing electable candidates."

Other local communities without districts favoring minority candidates produced Latino office holders in the same election, the most notable being Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño and Modesto City Schools trustee Ruben Villalobos.

'Someone who points out problems'

Flores, the Modesto business attorney, said civil rights is a special field requiring a particular expertise that he can't touch, and he knows of no others in the area. The Lawyers' Committee came "as invited advocates," he said. "I welcome them to come here and challenge the status quo if the law is on their side, and I knew that the law was on our side."

Flores, who grew up on muddy roads without streetlights in a neighborhood now suing the county, noted that Modesto looked to Los Angeles for outside counsel in the civil rights lawsuits. And the county selected a Sacramento firm in the services case. "There is the hypocrisy and it's so obvious. They do the same thing," he said.

Rubin sees his mission as bringing options to people who haven't had many.

"All I am," Rubin said, "is someone who points out problems with the law and says, 'Judge, do you agree?' "

Through The Years

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area twice has used the Modesto area for test cases demanding voting reforms and improvements to underserved Latino neighborhoods.


November: Modesto voters reject district elections for City Council, with 58 percent opposing.


July: Gov. Davis signs California Voting Rights Act of 2001, written by Lawyers' Committee to counter at-large ballots with district elections providing more chances for minority candidates.


June: On behalf of three Latino residents of Modesto, Lawyers' Committee sues city to force district elections.

July: Lawyers' Committee sues Hanford high schools to force district elections.

October: On behalf of a dozen people in four west Modesto and south Modesto neighborhoods, Lawyers' Committee sues Stanislaus County, saying racially biased policies have resulted in substandard services and slow emergency response.


February: Lawyers' Committee joins American Civil Liberties Union and California Rural Legal Assistance with questions about a Ceres police gang sweep.

March: A judge in Modesto throws out district elections lawsuit, saying California Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. Hanford schools agree to switch to district elections and eventually pay Lawyers' Committee $110,000 to settle the lawsuit.


December: Federal appeals court in Fresno sides with Lawyers' Committee against Modesto on district elections.


March: California Supreme Court refuses to hear Modesto's appeal on district elections.

May, July and August: Federal judge in Fresno sides with Stanislaus County in series of rulings on services lawsuit.

October: U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear Modesto's appeal on district elections.


February: Modesto voters approve district elections.

May: Modesto City Council agrees to pay $3 million to settle district elections lawsuit.

August: Lawyers' Committee sues Madera schools to force district elections.

September: Lawyers' Committee threatens to sue Ceres schools to force district elections. Madera judge orders district elections for schools. To avoid lawsuits, Fresno County schools superintendent advises district elections for all 32 school boards there.


January: Ceres schools trustees agree to switch to district elections. Lawyers' Committee sends $1.2 million bill for attorneys' fees to Madera schools.

October: Federal appeals court in San Francisco reverses Stanislaus County's victory in services case, reinstating lawsuit on slow emergency response, annexation difficulties and fair housing while dismissing claims of infrastructure bias regarding substandard sewers and storm drains. Both sides ask the court to reconsider.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.