425 U.S. 130 (1976), 73-1869, Beer v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 73-1869
Citation:425 U.S. 130, 96 S.Ct. 1357, 47 L.Ed.2d 629
Party Name:Beer v. United States
Case Date:March 30, 1976
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 130

425 U.S. 130 (1976)

96 S.Ct. 1357, 47 L.Ed.2d 629

Beer

v.

United States

No. 73-1869

United States Supreme Court

March 30, 1976

Argued March 26, 1975

Reargued November 12, 1975

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

Syllabus

The 1954 New Orleans City Charter provides for a seven-member city council, with one member being elected from each of five councilmanic districts, and two being elected by the voters of the city at large. In 1961 the council, as it was required to do after each decennial census, redistricted the city based on the 1960 census so that, in one councilmanic district, Negroes constituted a majority of the population, but only about half of the registered voters, and, in the other four districts, white voters outnumbered Negroes. No Negro was elected to the council from 1960 to 1970. After the 1970 census, the council devised a reapportionment plan, under which there would be Negro population majorities in two councilmanic districts and a Negro voter majority in one. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits a State or political subdivision subject to § 4 of the Act (as New Orleans is) from enforcing a proposed change in voting procedures unless it has obtained a declaratory judgment from the District Court of the District of Columbia that such change "does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color" or has submitted the change to the Attorney General and he has not objected to it. After the proposed plan had been objected to by the Attorney General, New Orleans sought a declaratory judgment in the District Court. That court refused to allow the plan to go into effect, holding that it would have the effect of abridging Negro voting rights, and that, moreover, the plan's failure to alter the city charter provision for two at-large seats in itself had such effect.

Held:

1. Since § 5's language clearly provides that it applies only to proposed changes in voting procedures, and since the at-large seats existed without change since 1954, those seats were not subject to review under § 5. The District Court consequently erred in holding that the plan could be rejected under § 5 solely because it did not eliminate the two at-large seats. Pp. 138-139.

2. A legislative reapportionment that enhances the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the

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electoral franchise cannot violate § 5 unless the new apportionment itself so discriminates racially as to violate the Constitution. Applying this standard here, where, in contrast to the 1961 apportionment under which none of the five councilmanic districts had a clear Negro voting majority and no Negro had been elected to the council, Negroes under the plan in question will constitute a population majority in two of the five districts and a clear voting majority in one, it is predictable that, by bloc voting, one and perhaps two Negroes will be elected to the council. The District Court therefore erred in concluding that the plan would have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color within the meaning of § 5. Pp. 139-142.

374 F.Supp. 363, vacated and remanded.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 143. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 145. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 19651 prohibits

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a State or political subdivision subject to § 4 of the Act2 from enforcing

any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect

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to voting different from that in force or effect on November 1, 1964

unless it has obtained a declaratory judgment from the District Court for the District of Columbia that such change "does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color" or has submitted the proposed change to the Attorney General and the Attorney General has not objected to it. The constitutionality of this procedure was upheld in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, and it is now well established that § 5 is applicable when a State or political subdivision adopts a legislative reapportionment plan. Allen v. State Board of Elections, 393 U.S. 544; Georgia v. United States, 411 U.S. 526.

The city of New Orleans brought this suit under § 5 seeking a judgment declaring that a reapportionment of New Orleans' councilmanic districts did not have the purpose or effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.3 The District Court

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entered a judgment of dismissal, holding that the new reapportionment plan would have the effect of abridging the voting rights of New Orleans' Negro citizens. 374 F.Supp. 363. The city appealed the judgment to this Court, claiming that the District Court used an incorrect standard in assessing the effect of the reapportionment in this § 5 suit. We noted probable jurisdiction of the appeal. 419 U.S. 822.

I

New Orleans is a city of almost 600,000 people. Some 55% of that population is white, and the remaining 45% is Negro. Some 65% of the registered voters are white, and the remaining 35% are Negro.4 In 1954, New Orleans adopted a mayor-council form of government. Since that time, the municipal charter has provided that the city council is to consist of seven members, one to be elected from each of five councilmanic districts, and two to be elected by the voters of the city at large. The 1954 charter also requires an adjustment of the boundaries of the five single member councilmanic districts following each decennial census to reflect population shifts among the districts.

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In 1961, the city council redistricted the city based on the 1960 census figures. That reapportionment plan established four districts that stretched from the edge of Lake Pontchartrain on the north side of the city to the Mississippi River on the city's south side. The fifth district was wedge-shaped, and encompassed the city's downtown area. In one of these councilmanic districts, Negroes constituted a majority of the population, but only about half of the registered voters. In the other four districts, white voters clearly outnumbered Negro voters. No Negro was elected to the New Orleans City Council during the decade from 1960 to 1970.

[96 S.Ct. 1361] After receipt of the 1970 census figures, the city council adopted a reapportionment plan (Plan I) that continued the basic north-to-south pattern of councilmanic districts combined with a wedge-shaped, downtown district. Under Plan I, Negroes constituted a majority of the population in two districts, but they did not make up a majority of registered voters in any district. The largest percentage of Negro voters in a single district under Plan I was 45.2%. When the city submitted Plan I to the Attorney General pursuant to § 5, he objected to it, stating that it appeared to "dilute black voting strength by combining a number of black voters with a larger number of white voters in each of the five districts." He also expressed the view that "the district lines [were not] drawn as they [were] because of any compelling governmental need," and that the district lines did "not reflect numeric population configurations or considerations of district compactness or regularity of shape."

Even before the Attorney General objected to Plan I, the city authorities had commenced work on a second plan -- Plan II.5 That plan followed the general north-to-south

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districting pattern common to the 1961 apportionment and Plan I.6 It produced Negro population majorities in two districts and a Negro voter majority (52.6%) in one district. When Plan II was submitted to the Attorney General, he posed the same objections to it that he had raised to Plan I. In addition, he noted that "the predominantly black neighborhoods in the city are located generally in an east to west progression," and pointed out that the use of north-to-south districts in such a situation almost inevitably would have the effect of diluting the maximum potential impact of the Negro vote. Following the rejection by the Attorney General of Plan II, the city brought this declaratory judgment action in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

The District Court concluded that Plan II would have the effect of abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.7 It calculated that, if Negroes could elect city councilmen in proportion to their share of the city's registered voters, they would be able to choose 2.42 of the city's seven councilmen, and, if in proportion to their share of the city's population, to choose 3.15 councilmen.8 But, under Plan II, the District Court concluded

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that, since New Orleans' elections had been marked by bloc voting along racial lines, Negroes would probably be able to elect only one councilman -- the candidate from the one councilmanic district in which a majority of the voters ere Negroes. This difference between mathematical potential and predicted. reality was such that "the burden in [96 S.Ct. 1362] the case at bar was at least to demonstrate that nothing but the redistricting proposed by Plan II was feasible." 374 F.Supp. at 393. The court concluded that

[t]he City has not made that sort of demonstration; indeed, it was conceded at trial that neither that plan nor any of its variations was the City's sole available alternative.

Ibid.9

As a separate and independent ground for rejecting Plan II, the...

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