430 U.S. 259 (1977), 75-1157, Town of Lockport v. Citizens for

Docket Nº:No. 75-1157
Citation:430 U.S. 259, 97 S.Ct. 1047, 51 L.Ed.2d 313
Party Name:Town of Lockport v. Citizens for
Case Date:March 07, 1977
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 259

430 U.S. 259 (1977)

97 S.Ct. 1047, 51 L.Ed.2d 313

Town of Lockport

v.

Citizens for

No. 75-1157

United States Supreme Court

March 7, 1977

Community Action at the Local Level, Inc.

Argued November 30-December 1, 1976

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK

Syllabus

County government in New York has traditionally taken the form of a single-branch legislature, exercising general governmental powers, and such powers are also exercised by the county's constituent cities, villages, and towns. The allocation of powers among these subdivisions can be changed, and a new form of county government adopted, pursuant to referendum procedures provided by the New York Constitution and an implementing statute, under which a proposed county charter submitted to the voters for approval is adopted only if a majority of the voting city dwellers and a majority of the voting noncity dwellers both approve. After a proposed charter for Niagara County submitted to the voters pursuant to these procedures was defeated (despite the fact that a majority of those voting in the entire county favored it) when the city voters approved it but the noncity voters disapproved it, appellees, a group of Niagara County voters, brought suit in Federal District Court challenging the constitutionality of the procedures, and a three-judge court held that the concurrent majority requirements violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Held: The challenged provisions, which are entitled to a presumption of constitutionality, do not violate the Equal Protection Clause. The separate voter approval requirements are based on the perception that the real and long-term impact of a restructuring of local government is felt quite differently by the different county constituent units that in a sense compete to provide similar governmental services. Voters in these constituent units are directly and differentially affected by the restructuring of county government, which may make the provider of public services more remote and less subject to the voters' individual influence, and these differing interests of city and noncity voters in the adoption of a new county charter are sufficient under the Equal Protection Clause to justify the classifications made under the law. Pp. 268-273.

Reversed. See 386 F.Supp. 1.

Page 260

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BURGER, C J., concurred in the judgment.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

New York law provides that a new county charter will go into effect only if it is approved in a referendum election by separate majorities of the voters who live in the cities within the county, and of those who live outside the cities. A three-judge Federal District Court held that these requirements violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We noted probable jurisdiction of this direct appeal from the District Court's judgment under 28 U.S.C. § 1253. 426 U.S. 918.

I

County government in New York has traditionally taken the form of a single-branch legislature, exercising general governmental powers. General governmental powers are also exercised by the county's constituent cities, villages, and towns. The allocation of powers among these subdivisions can be changed, and a new form of county government adopted, pursuant to referendum procedures specified in Art. IX of the New York Constitution1 and implemented [97 S.Ct. 1050] by § 33

Page 261

of the Municipal Home Rule Law.2 Under those procedures, a county board of supervisors may submit a proposed charter to the voters for approval. If a majority of the voting city

Page 262

dwellers and a majority of the voting noncity dwellers both approve, the charter is adopted.3

In November, 1972, a proposed charter for the county of Niagara was put to referendum. The charter created the new offices of County Executive and County Comptroller, and continued the county's existing power to establish tax rates, equalize assessments, issue bonds, maintain roads, and administer health and public welfare services. No explicit provision for redistribution of governmental powers from the cities or towns to the county government was made. The city voters approved the charter by a vote of 18,220 to 14,914. The noncity voters disapproved the charter by a vote of 11,594 to 10,665.4 A majority of those voting in the entire county thus favored the charter.5

Page 263

[97 S.Ct. 1051] The appellees, a group of Niagara County voters, filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York, seeking a declaration that the New York constitutional and statutory provisions governing adoption of the charter form of county government are unconstitutional, and an order directing the appropriate New York officials to file the Niagara County charter as a duly enacted local law. A three-judge court was convened. Before its decision was announced, however, another new charter was put to referendum in Niagara County in November, 1974. Again a majority of the city dwellers who voted approved the charter, a majority of the noncity voters disapproved it, and an aggregate majority of all those in the county who voted approved it.6 The District Court subsequently found the concurrent majority requirements of the New York Constitution and the New York Municipal Home Rule Law violative of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and ordered implementation of the 1972 Charter. 386 F.Supp. 1.7 On appeal, this Court vacated that judgment and remanded the cause "for reconsideration in light of the provisions of [the] new charter adopted by Niagara County in 1974." 423 U.S. 808. In subsequent proceedings on remand, the District Court found that there was "no substantial difference between the

Page 264

two Charters," and that the 1974 County Charter had superseded the 1972 Charter.8 Pursuant to its previous constitutional adjudication, the court decreed that the 1974 Charter "is in full force and effect as the instrument defining the form of local government for Niagara County."9

II

The impact of the Equal Protection Clause on the exercise of the electoral franchise under state law is hardly a novel concern of the federal judiciary. It was made clear more than 15 years ago in Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, that the subject is a justiciable one, and ever since the seminal case of Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, it has been established that the Equal Protection Clause cannot tolerate the [97 S.Ct. 1052] disparity in individual voting strength that result when elected officials represent districts of unequal population, since

the fundamental

Page 265

principle of representative government in this country is one of equal representation for equal numbers of people, without regard to race, sex, economic status, or place of residence within a State.

Id. at 560-561.10

In the case before us, the District Court, though recognizing that "the precise issue here presented appears to be one of first impression," concluded that the rule of Reynolds v. Sims controlled its resolution. "Reasoning by analogy," the court held, in short, that the dual majority requirement of New York law "is unconstitutional because it violates the one man, one vote principle." 386 F.Supp. at 7. In assessing the correctness of the District Court's judgment, it is thus appropriate to begin by recalling the basic rationale of the decisions of this Court in which that principle was first developed and applied.

The rationale is, at bottom, so simple as to be almost self-evident. Beginning with Reynolds v. Sims, supra, cases in which the principle emerged involved challenges to state legislative apportionment systems that gave "the same number of representatives to unequal numbers of constituents." 377 U.S. at 563. The Court concluded that, in voting for their legislators, all citizens have an equal interest in representative democracy, and that the concept of equal protection therefore requires that their votes be given equal weight.11 See, e.g., Lucas v. Colorado Gen. Assembly, 377 U.S. 713; Fortson v. Dorsey, 379 U.S. 433; Burns v. Richardson, 384

Page 266

U.S. 73, Swann v. Adams, 385 U.S. 440; Kilgarlin v. Hill, 386 U.S. 120; Whitcomb v. Chavis, 403 U.S. 124; Gaffney v. Cummings, 412 U.S. 735.

The equal protection principles applicable in gauging the fairness of an election involving the choice of legislative representatives are of limited relevance, however, in analyzing the propriety of recognizing distinctive voter interests in a "single-shot" referendum. In a referendum, the expression of voter will is direct, and there is no need to assure that the voters' views will be adequately represented through their representatives in the legislature. The policy impact of a referendum is also different in kind from the impact of choosing representatives -- instead of sending legislators off to the state capitol to vote on a multitude of issues, the referendum puts one discrete issue to the voters. That issue is capable, at least, of being analyzed to determine whether its adoption or rejection will have a disproportionate impact on an identifiable group of voters. If it is found to have such a disproportionate impact, the question then is whether a State can recognize that impact either by limiting the franchise to those voters specially affected or by giving their votes a special weight. This question has been confronted by the Court in two types of cases: those dealing with elections involving "special-interest" governmental bodies of limited jurisdiction, and those dealing with bond referenda.

The Court has held that the electorate of a special purpose unit of government, such as a...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP