410 U.S. 719 (1973), 71-1456, Salyer Land Co. v. Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District

Docket Nº:No. 71-1456
Citation:410 U.S. 719, 93 S.Ct. 1224, 35 L.Ed.2d 659
Party Name:Salyer Land Co. v. Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District
Case Date:March 20, 1973
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 719

410 U.S. 719 (1973)

93 S.Ct. 1224, 35 L.Ed.2d 659

Salyer Land Co.


Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District

No. 71-1456

United States Supreme Court

March 20, 1973

Argued January 8, 1973




Appellee district exists for the purpose of acquiring, storing, and distributing water for farming in the Tulare Lake Basin. Only landowners are qualified to elect the district's board of directors, votes being apportioned according to the assessed valuation of the lands. A three-judge District Court, against challenge by appellants, held that the limitation of the franchise to landowners comported with equal protection requirements.


1. Restricting the voters to landowners who may or may not be residents does not violate the principle enunciated in such cases as Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, and Kramer v. Union School District, 395 U.S. 621, that governing bodies should be selected in a popular election in which every person's vote is equal. Pp. 726-730.

(a) The activities of appellee district fall so disproportionately on landowners as a group that it is not unreasonable that the statutory framework focuses on the land benefited, rather than on people as such. Pp. 726-728.

(b) Although appellee district has some governmental powers, it provides none of the general public services ordinarily attributed to a governing body. Pp. 728-729.

2. Since assessments against landowners are the sole means by which expenses of appellee district are paid, it is not irrational to repose the franchise in landowners, but not residents. Pp. 730-731.

3. The exclusion of lessees from voting does not violate the Equal Protection Clause, since the short-term lessee's interest may be substantially less than that of a landowner and, the franchise being exercisable by proxy, other lessees may negotiate to have the franchise included in their leases. Pp. 731-733.

4. Weighting the vote according to assessed valuation of the land does not evade the principle that wealth has no relation to voter qualifications where, as here, the expense as well as the benefit is proportional to the land's assessed value. Pp. 733-735.

342 F.Supp. 144, affirmed.

Page 720

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART WHITE BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. DOUGLAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 735.

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is another in the line of cases in which the Court has had occasion to consider the limits imposed by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment on legislation apportioning representation in state and local governing bodies and establishing qualifications for voters in the election of such representatives. Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964), enunciated the constitutional standard for apportionment of state legislature. Later cases such as Avery v. Midland County, 390 U.S. 474 (1968), and Hadley v. Junior College District, 397 U.S. 50 (1970), extended the Reynolds rule to the governing bodies of a county and of a junior college district, respectively. We are here presented with the issue expressly reserved in Avery, supra:

Were the [county's governing body] a special purpose unit of government assigned the performance of functions affecting definable groups of constituents

Page 721

more than other constituents, we would have to confront the question whether such a body may be apportioned in ways which give greater influence to the citizens most affected by the organization's functions.

390 U.S. at 483-484.

The particular type of local government unit whose organization is challenged on constitutional grounds in this case is a water storage district, organized pursuant to the California Water Storage District Act, Calif.Water Code § 39000 et seq. The peculiar problems of adequate water supplies faced by most of the western third of the Nation have been described by Mr. Justice Sutherland, who was himself intimately familiar with them, in California Oregon Power Co. v. Beaver Portland Cement Co., 295 U.S. 142, 156-157 (1935):

These states and territories comprised the western third of the United States -- a vast empire in extent, but still sparsely settled. From a line east of the Rocky Mountains almost to the Pacific Ocean, and from the Canadian border to the boundary of Mexico -- an area greater than that of the original thirteen states -- the lands capable of redemption, in the main, constituted a desert, impossible of agricultural use without artificial irrigation.

In the beginning, the task of reclaiming this area was left to the unaided efforts of the people who found their way by painful effort to its inhospitable solitudes. These western pioneers, emulating the spirit of so many others who had gone before them in similar ventures, faced the difficult problem of wresting a living and creating homes from the raw elements about them, and threw down the gage of battle to the forces of nature. With imperfect tools, they built dams, excavated canals, constructed ditches, plowed and cultivated the soil, and transformed

Page 722

dry and desolate lands into green fields and leafy orchards. . . .

Californians, in common with other residents of the West, found the State's rivers and. streams in their natural state to present the familiar paradox of feast or famine. With melting snow in the high mountains in the spring, small streams became roaring freshets and the rivers they fed carried the potential for destructive floods. But with the end of the rainy season in the early spring, farmers depended entirely upon water from such streams and rivers until the rainy season again began in the fall. Long before that time, however, rivers which ran bank full in the spring had been reduced to a bare trickle of water.

[93 S.Ct. 1227] It was not enough, therefore, for individual farmers or groups of farmers to build irrigation canals and ditches which depended for their operation on the natural flow of these streams. Storage dams had to be constructed to impound in their reservoirs the flow of the rivers at flood stage for later release during the dry season regimen of these streams. For the construction of major dams to facilitate the storage of water for irrigation of large areas, the full resources of the State and frequently of the Federal Government were necessary.1

But for less costly projects which would benefit a more restricted geographic area, the State was frequently either unable or unwilling to pledge its credit or its resources. The California Legislature therefore has authorized a number of instrumentalities, including water storage districts such as the appellee here, to provide a local response to water problems.

Some history of the experience of California and the other Western States with the problems of water distribution

Page 723

is contained in Fallbrook Irrigation District v. Bradley, 164 U.S. 112, 151-154 (1896), in which the constitutionality of California's Wright Act was sustained against claims of denial of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. While the irrigation district was apparently the first local governmental unit authorized to deal with water distribution, it is by no means the only one. General legislation in California authorizes the creation not only of irrigation districts, but of water conservation districts, water storage and conservation districts, flood control districts, and water storage districts such as appellee.2

Appellee district consists of 193,000 acres of intensively cultivated, highly fertile farm land located in the Tulare Lake Basin. Its population consists of 77 persons, including 18 children, most of whom are employees of one or another of the four corporations that farm 85% of the land in the district.

Such districts are authorized to plan projects and execute approved projects "for the acquisition, appropriation, diversion, storage, conservation, and distribution of water. . . ." Calif.Water Code § 42200 et seq.3 Incidental to this general power, districts may "acquire, improve, and operate" any necessary works for the storage

Page 724

and distribution of water as well as any drainage or reclamation works connected therewith, and the generation and distribution of hydroelectric power may be provided for.4 Id. §§ 43000, 43025. They may fix tolls and charges for the use of water and collect them from all persons receiving the benefit of the water or other services in proportion to the services rendered. Id. § 43006. The costs of the projects are assessed against district land in accordance with the benefits accruing to each tract held in separate ownership. Id. §§ 46175, 46176. And land that is not benefited may be withdrawn from the district on petition. Id. § 48029.

[93 S.Ct. 1228] Governance of the districts is undertaken by a board of directors. Id. § 40658. Each director is elected from one of the divisions within the district, id. § 39929, and each must take an official oath and execute a bond. Id. § 40301. General elections for the directors are to be held in odd-numbered years. Id. §§ 39027, 41300 et seq.

It is the voter qualification for such elections that appellants claim invidiously discriminates against them and persons similarly situated. Appellants are landowners, a landowner-lessee, and residents within the area included in the appellee's water storage district. They brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief in an effort to prevent appellee from...

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