451 U.S. 355 (1981), 79-1740, Ball v. James

Docket Nº:No. 79-1740
Citation:451 U.S. 355, 101 S.Ct. 1811, 68 L.Ed.2d 150
Party Name:Ball v. James
Case Date:April 29, 1981
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 355

451 U.S. 355 (1981)

101 S.Ct. 1811, 68 L.Ed.2d 150




No. 79-1740

United States Supreme Court

April 29, 1981

Argued February 23, 1981




The Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District (District), a governmental entity, stores and delivers untreated water to the owners of 236,000 acres of land in central Arizona, and, to subsidize its water operations, sells electricity to hundreds of thousands of people in an area including a large part of metropolitan Phoenix. Under state law, the system for [101 S.Ct. 1813] electing the District's directors limits voting eligibility to landowners and apportions voting power according to the number of acres owned. A class of registered voters living within the District but owning either no land or less than an acre of land there filed suit, claiming that the election scheme violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. They alleged that, because the District has such governmental powers as the authority to condemn land and sell tax-exempt bonds, and because it sells electricity to virtually half the State's population and exercises significant influence on flood control and environmental management, its policies and actions substantially affect all District residents, regardless of property ownership. The District Court upheld the constitutionality of the voting scheme, but the Court of Appeals reversed. It held that the case was governed by the one-person, one-vote principle established in Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, rather than by the exception to that principle established in Salyer Land Co. v. Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage Dist., 410 U.S. 719, which upheld a state law permitting only landowners to vote for directors of a water district because of its special limited purpose and the disproportionate effect of its activities on landowners as a group.

Held: The District's purpose is sufficiently specialized and narrow and its activities bear on landowners so disproportionately as to release it from the strict demands of the Reynolds principle. As in Salyer, supra, the voting scheme for the District is constitutional because it bears a reasonable relationship to its statutory objectives. Pp. 362-371.

(a) The distinctions between the more diverse and extensive services furnished by the District here and those furnished by the water district involved in Salyer, supra, do not amount to a constitutional difference. The District does not exercise the sort of governmental

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powers that invoke the strict demands of Reynolds. It cannot impose ad valorem property taxes or sales taxes or enact laws governing citizens' conduct. Nor does it administer normal government functions such as the maintenance of streets, the operation of schools, or sanitation, health, or welfare services. Pp. 365-336.

(b) The District's water functions, which constitute its primary and originating purpose, are relatively narrow. Although, unlike in Salyer, as much as 40% of the water delivered by the District goes for nonagricultural, urban purposes, the constitutionally relevant fact is that all water is distributed according to land ownership, and the District cannot control the use to which the water is put by the landowners. Pp. 367-368.

(c) Nor is the legality of the District's property-based voting scheme affected by the fact that, as one of the largest suppliers of electric power in the State, it meets most of its capital and operating costs by the selling of such power. The provision of electricity is not, in itself, the sort of general or important governmental function that would make the government provider subject to the Reynolds doctrine. And, in any event, the District's electric power functions are only incidental to, and thus cannot change the character of, its water functions. Pp. 368-370.

(d) And the District's functions bear a disproportionate relationship to the specific class of people whom the system makes eligible to vote. Voting landowners are the only residents of the District whose lands are subject to liens to secure District bonds, who are subject to the District's acreage-based taxing power, and who committed capital to the District. Pp. 370-371.

613 F.2d 180, reversed and remanded.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 372. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 374.

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STEWART, J., lead opinion

[101 S.Ct. 1814] JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

This appeal concerns the constitutionality of the system for electing the directors of a large water reclamation district in Arizona, a system which, in essence, limits voting eligibility to landowners and apportions voting power according to the amount of land a voter owns. The case requires us to consider whether the peculiarly narrow function of this local governmental body and the special relationship of one class of citizens to that body releases it from the strict demands of the one-person, one-vote principle of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


The public entity at issue here is the Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District, which stores and delivers untreated water to the owners of land comprising 236,000 acres in central Arizona.1 The District, formed as a governmental entity in 1937, subsidizes its water operations by selling electricity, and has become the supplier of electric power for hundreds of thousands of people in an area including a large part of metropolitan Phoenix. Nevertheless, the history of the District began in the efforts of Arizona farmers in the 19th century to irrigate the arid lands of the Salt River Valley, and, as the parties have stipulated, the primary purposes of the District have always been the storage, delivery, and conservation of water.

As early as 1867, farmers in the Salt River Valley attempted to irrigate their lands with water from the Salt River. In 1895, concerned with the erratic and unreliable flow of the river, they formed a "Farmers Protective Association," which helped persuade Congress to pass the Reclamation Act of 1902, 32 Stat. 388, 43 U.S.C. § 371 et seq. Under

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that Act, the United States gave interest-free loans to help landowners build reclamation projects. The Salt River Project, from which the District developed, was created in 1903 as a result of this legislation. In 1906, Congress authorized projects created under the Act to generate and sell hydroelectric power, 43 U.S.C. § 522, and the Salt River Project has supported its water operations by this means almost since its creation. The 1902 Act provided that the water users who benefited from the reclamation project had to agree to repay to the United States the costs of constructing the project, and the Salt River Valley Water Users Association was organized as an Arizona corporation in 1903 to serve as the contracting agent for the landowners. The Association's Articles, drafted in cooperation with the Federal Reclamation Service, gave subscribing landowners the right to reclamation water and the power to vote in Association decisions in proportion to the number of acres the subscribers owned. The Articles also authorized acreage-proportionate stock assessments to raise income for the Association, the assessments becoming a lien on the subscribing owners' land until paid. For almost 15 years, the Federal Reclamation Service operated and maintained the project's irrigation system for the landowners; under a 1917 contract with the United States, however, the Association itself took on these tasks, proceeding to manage the project for the next 20 years.

The Association faced serious financial difficulties during the Depression as it built new dams and other works for the project, and it sought a means of borrowing money that would not overly encumber the subscribers' lands. The means seemed to be available in Arizona's Agricultural Improvement District Act of 1922, which authorized the creation of special public water districts within federal reclamation projects. Ariz.Rev.Code of 1928, § 3467 et seq. Such districts, as political subdivisions of the State, could issue bonds exempt from federal income tax. Nevertheless, many Association members opposed creating a special district for

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the project, in part because [101 S.Ct. 1815] the state statute would have required that voting power in elections for directors of the district be distributed per capita among landowners, and not according to the acreage formula for stock assessments and water rights. In 1936, in response to a request from the Association, the state legislature amended the 1922 statute. Under the new statutory scheme, which is essentially the one at issue in this case, the legislature allowed the district to limit voting for its directors to voters, otherwise regularly qualified under state law, who own land within the district, and to apportion voting power among those landowners according to the number of acres owned. Ariz.Rev.Stat.Ann. §§ 4909, 4983 (Supp. 1981981).2 The Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District was then formed in 1937, its boundaries essentially the same as the Association's. Under the 1937 agreement, the Association made the District its contracting agent, and transferred to the District all its property, and the Association, in turn, agreed to continue to operate and maintain the Salt River Project. Under the current agreement, the District itself manages the power and water storage work of the...

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