395 U.S. 285 (1969), 701, Gaston County v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 701
Citation:395 U.S. 285, 89 S.Ct. 1720, 23 L.Ed.2d 309
Party Name:Gaston County v. United States
Case Date:June 02, 1969
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 285

395 U.S. 285 (1969)

89 S.Ct. 1720, 23 L.Ed.2d 309

Gaston County

v.

United States

No. 701

United States Supreme Court

June 2, 1969

Argued April 23-24, 1969

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

Syllabus

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspends the use of any test or device as a prerequisite to registering to vote, in any State or political subdivision which, on November 1, 1964, maintained a test or device and in which less than 50% of the voting-age residents were registered or voted in the 1964 presidential election. Suspension is automatic upon publication by the Attorney General and the Director of the Census, respectively, that these conditions apply to a particular governmental unit. Such determinations were published with respect to Gaston County, North Carolina, and the use of the State's literacy test within the County was thereby suspended. Appellant brought suit to reinstate the test, asserting in accord with § 4(a) of the Act

that no such test or device has been used during the five years preceding the filing of the action for the purpose or with the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.

The Government contended that use of the test did have the "effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color" because it placed an onerous burden on the Negroes for whom the County had maintained separate and inferior schools. The three-judge District Court denied relief, holding that the County had not met its burden of proving that its use of the literacy test, in the context of its historic maintenance of segregated and unequal schools, did not discriminatorily deprive Negroes of the franchise.

Held:

1. The Act's legislative history discloses that Congress was aware of the potential effect of unequal educational opportunities upon the right to vote when it designed the test suspension provisions, and it is appropriate in an action under § 4(a) for a court to consider whether a literacy or educational requirement has the "effect of denying the right to vote on account of race or color" because the State or subdivision seeking to impose the requirement has maintained separate and inferior schools for its Negro citizens who are now of voting age. Pp. 289-293.

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2. The District Court's conclusion that appellant had not met the burden imposed by § 4(a) of refuting the Government's prima facie case that the use of the literacy test coupled with the County's segregated and unequal school system had discriminatorily deprived Negroes of the franchise, was not clearly erroneous. Pp. 293-296.

3. Appellant's contentions that reregistration in 1962 was conducted fairly and impartially and that significant strides have been made in equalizing and integrating its school system do not refute the fact that, for many years, the County deprived its black citizens of the educational opportunities it granted its white citizens, and that "impartial" administration of the literacy test today would perpetuate those inequities in another form. Pp. 296-297.

288 F.Supp. 678, affirmed.

HARLAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspends the use of any test or device1 as a prerequisite to registering to vote in any election, in any State or political subdivision which, on November 1, 1964, maintained a test or device, and in which less than 50% of the residents of voting age were registered on that date or voted in the 1964 presidential

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election.2 Suspension is automatic upon publication in the Federal Register of determinations by the Attorney General and the Director of the Census, respectively, that these conditions apply to a particular governmental unit. If the unit wishes to reinstate the test or device, it must bring suit against the Government in a three-judge district court in the District of Columbia and prove

that no such test or device has been used during the five years preceding the filing of the action for the purpose or with the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color,

§ 4(a). The constitutionality of these provisions was upheld in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (1966).

On March 29, 1966, the Attorney General and the Director of the Census published the necessary determinations with respect to appellant, Gaston County, North Carolina. Use of the State's literacy test3 within the County was thereby suspended. On August 18, 1966, appellant brought this action in the District Court, making the requisite averments and seeking to reinstate the literacy test.

The United States opposed the granting of relief on the ground, inter alia, that use of the test had "the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color" because it placed a specially onerous burden on the County's Negro citizens for whom the County had maintained separate and inferior schools.

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After a full trial on this and other issues, the District Court denied the relief requested, holding that appellant had not met its burden of proving that its use of the literacy test, in the context of its historic maintenance of segregated and unequal schools, did not discriminatorily deprive Negroes of the franchise.4 Gaston County v. United States, 288 F.Supp. 678 (1968). The court made clear:

[W]e do not rely solely on the fact that the schools in Gaston County have been segregated during the period when persons presently of voting age were of school age, but instead have reviewed the evidence adduced by the Government in this case and concluded that the Negro schools were of inferior [89 S.Ct. 1722] quality in fact, as well as in law.

Id. at 689-690, n. 23.

Pursuant to § 4(a) of the Act, the County appealed directly to this Court. We noted probable jurisdiction, 393 U.S. 1011 (1969), and we affirm for substantially the reasons given by the majority in the District Court.

Appellant contends that the decision of the District Court is erroneous on three scores: first, as a matter of statutory construction and legislative history, the court could not consider Gaston County's practice of educational discrimination in determining whether its literacy test had the effect of discriminatorily denying the franchise; second, on...

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