The Justice Department charged today that Los Angeles City Council districts were drawn in 1982 to dilute the voting strength of the city's growing Hispanic community and asked a federal court to order redistricting.
The lawsuit follows a recent promise by Education Secretary William J. Bennett to look into charges that students of Asian descent are victims of discrimination in college admissions. Hispanics and Asian Americans comprise the fastest-growing minority groups in California and in the nation.
The suit filed in U.S. court here noted that although Hispanics made up 27 percent of Los Angeles' population in the 1980 Census, none of the city's 15 council members is Hispanic. There is one Asian American member.
The suit was signed by Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, among others. It alleges that the district plan, approved unanimously by the council, was "effectuated for the purpose and with the result of avoiding the higher Hispanic percentages in certain districts that would be the logical result of drawing district boundaries on a nonracial basis."
It charges that the council's plan violates a section of the Voting Rights Act prohibiting local government from abridging minorities' voting rights. It also says the council had divided predominantly Latino neighborhoods surrounding the downtown area among seven council districts, leaving only one with an apparent Latino majority.
Deputy Mayor Tom Houston, responding to the suit, said Mayor Tom Bradley "does feel that Hispanics have been underrepresented on the City Council." Houston noted that Bradley campaigned for a recent city ballot measure that would have added two council seats to help expand Latino representation without endangering incumbents.
Opponents argued that it would raise city administrative costs. Voters turned it down.
The City Council almost certainly will have a Latino member after a special election Dec. 10 to fill a vacancy in the 14th district, which has the city's highest percentage of Latino voters. Council member Arthur K. Snyder, an Anglo with a following among many Latinos, resigned after several well-publicized personal troubles. The leading candidates to succeed him are of Hispanic descent.
The suit noted that since 1900 only one Latino, Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Calif.), has been elected to the council. Roybal served from 1949 until 1962, when he was elected to Congress.
City Council President Pat Russell, who voted for the 1982 plan, said today that she was "surprised and disappointed" by the suit. A spokesman for Russell said that the 1982 plan was drawn with input from all ethnic groups.
Willie Velasquez, executive director of the San Antonia-based Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said he applauded the suit and that his group is pursuing suits in several other cities that appear to dilute Latino votes intentionally.