402 U.S. 137 (1971), 154, James v. Valtierra

Docket Nº:No. 154
Citation:402 U.S. 137, 91 S.Ct. 1331, 28 L.Ed.2d 678
Party Name:James v. Valtierra
Case Date:April 26, 1971
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 137

402 U.S. 137 (1971)

91 S.Ct. 1331, 28 L.Ed.2d 678




No. 154

United States Supreme Court

April 26, 1971

Argued March 3, 1971




Appellees, who are eligible for low-cost public housing, challenged the requirement of Art. XXXIV of the California Constitution that no low-rent housing project be developed, constructed, or acquired by any state public body without the approval of a majority of those voting at a community election, as violative of the Supremacy, Privileges and Immunities, and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution. A three-judge District Court enjoined the enforcement of the referendum provision on the ground that it denied appellees equal protection of the laws, relying chiefly on Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S. 385.

Held: The California procedure for mandatory referendums, which is not limited to proposals involving low-cost public housing, ensures democratic decisionmaking, and does not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Hunter v. Erickson, supra, distinguished. Pp. 140-143.

313 F.Supp. 1, reversed and remanded.

BLACK, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and HARLAN, STEWART, and WHITE, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 143. DOUGLAS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.

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BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases raise but a single issue. It grows out of the United States Housing Act of 1937, 50 Stat. 888, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1401 et seq., which established a federal housing agency authorized to make loans and grants to state agencies for slum clearance and low-rent housing projects. In response, the California Legislature created in each county and city a public housing authority to take advantage of the financing made available by the federal Housing Act. See Cal.Health & Safety Code § 34240. At the time the federal legislation was passed, the California Constitution had for many years reserved to the State's people the power to initiate legislation and to reject or approve by referendum any Act passed by the state legislature. Cal.Const., Art. IV, § 1. The same section reserved to the electors of counties and cities the power of initiative and referendum over acts of local government bodies. In 1950, however, the State Supreme Court held that local authorities' decisions on seeking federal aid for public housing projects were "executive" and "administrative," not "legislative," and therefore the state constitution's referendum provisions did not apply to these actions.1 Within six months of

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that decision, the California voters adopted Article XXXIV of the state constitution to bring public housing decisions under the State's referendum policy. The Article provided that no low-rent housing project should be developed, constructed, or acquired in any manner by a state public body until the project was approved by a majority of those voting at a community election.2

The present suits were brought by citizens of San Jose, California, and San Mateo County, localities where housing authorities could not apply for federal funds because low-cost housing proposals had been defeated in referendums. The plaintiffs, who are eligible for low-cost [91 S.Ct. 1333] public housing, sought a declaration that Article XXXIV was unconstitutional because its referendum requirement violated: (1) the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution; (2) the Privileges and Immunities Clause; and (3) the Equal Protection Clause. A three-judge court held that Article XXXIV denied the plaintiffs

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equal protection of the laws, and it enjoined its enforcement. 313 F.Supp. 1 (ND Cal.1970). Two appeals were taken from the judgment, one by the San Jose City Council and the other by a single member of the council. We noted probable jurisdiction of both appeals. 398 U.S. 949 (1970); 399 U.S. 925 (1970). For the reasons that follow, we reverse.

The three-judge court found the Supremacy Clause argument unpersuasive, and we agree. By the Housing Act of 1937, the Federal Government has offered aid to state and local governments for the creation of low-rent public housing. However, the federal legislation does not purport to require that local governments accept this or to outlaw local referendums on whether the aid should be accepted. We also find the privileges and immunities argument without merit.

While the District Court cited several cases of this Court, its chief reliance plainly rested on Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S. 385 (1969). The first paragraph in the District Court's decision stated simply: "We hold Article XXXIV to be unconstitutional. See Hunter v. Erickson. . . ." The court below erred in relying on Hunter to invalidate Article XXXIV. Unlike the case before us, Hunter rested on the conclusion that Akron's referendum law denied equal protection by placing "special burdens on racial minorities within the governmental process." Id. at 391. In Hunter, the citizens of Akron had amended the city charter to require that any ordinance regulating real estate on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin could not take effect without approval by a majority of those voting in a city election. The Court held that the amendment created a classification based upon race because it required that laws dealing with racial housing matters could take effect only if they survived a mandatory referendum, while

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other housing ordinances took effect without any such special election. The opinion noted:

Because the core of the Fourteenth Amendment is the prevention of meaningful and unjustified official distinctions based on race, [citing a group of racial discrimination cases] racial classifications are "constitutionally suspect," . . . and subject to the "most rigid scrutiny.". . . They "bear a far heavier burden of justification" than other classifications.

Id. at 391-392. The Court concluded that Akron had advanced no sufficient reasons to justify this racial classification, and hence that it was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Unlike the Akron referendum provision, it cannot be said that California's Article XXXIV rests on "distinctions based on race." Id. at 391. The Article requires referendum approval for any low-rent public housing project, not only for projects which will be occupied by a racial minority. And the record here would not support any claim that a law seemingly...

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