ONE OF THE MOST stubborn vestiges of discrimination in violation of the Voting Rights Act turns out to involve city council districts. In 1981 the Justice Department forced New York City to delay its council elections and redraw the lines it had drawn after the 1980 Census. A case is currently being litigated in federal court against Chicago on similar grounds. And last Tuesday the Justice Department filed suit against Los Angeles for its 1982 council districting.

These were not necessarily the sort of cases the authors of the Voting Rights Act had in mind. The authors were worried primarily about the exclusion of blacks from political life in the South, especially the rural South. The council cases arise in big cities, and the victims of discrimination are not only black but Hispanic. The Los Angeles case concerns only Hispanics. About 27 percent of Los Angeles' population is Hispanic, but only one of 15 council districts has a Hispanic majority, and for years it has elected an Anglo councilman, Arthur Snyder, who resigned for reasons unconnected with the suit. Other heavily Hispanic areas in central Los Angeles are divided among seven districts.

The alleged violation here is not as egregious as those that inspired the Voting Rights Act. Hispanics are not prevented from voting or threatened with physical or economic retaliation if they do. And the fact that only one Hispanic has been elected to the Los Angeles city council in this century doesn't prove conclusively that voter discrimination exists.

Nevertheless, the Justice Department contends that the 1982 redistricting plan was consciously and specifically drawn to fragment the Hispanic population into a number of districts and thus "to minimize the potential voting strength of the Hispanic population of Los Angeles." Such a deliberate, discriminatory structuring of boundaries would be a violation of federal law. The lines were drawn, the department contends, "notwithstanding specific requests at public hearings from members of the Hispanic community that (their community boundaries) be respected during the redistricting proc

City governments traditionally dispense patronage and provide services that directly affect the lives of individual citizens. In the largest cities -- New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- local administrations have also played a special role in assisting immigrants and caring for the disadvantaged. Every group has a stake in selecting city legislators, and the federal government has the responsibility to see that this process is conducted fairly. This makes the Los Angeles case an important one not just for California Hispanics but also for urban minorities all across the country.