458 U.S. 613 (1982), 80-2100, Rogers v. Lodge

Docket Nº:No. 80-2100
Citation:458 U.S. 613, 102 S.Ct. 3272, 73 L.Ed.2d 1012
Party Name:Rogers v. Lodge
Case Date:July 01, 1982
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 613

458 U.S. 613 (1982)

102 S.Ct. 3272, 73 L.Ed.2d 1012

Rogers

v.

Lodge

No. 80-2100

United States Supreme Court

July 1, 1982

Argued February 23, 1982

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Burke County, Ga., a large, predominately rural county, has an at-large system for electing members of its governing Board of Commissioners. No Negro has ever been elected to the Board. Appellee black citizens of the county filed a class action in Federal District Court, alleging that the at-large system of elections violated, inter alia, appellees' Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment rights by diluting the voting power of black citizens. Finding that blacks have always made up a substantial majority of the county's population, but that they are a minority of the registered voters, that there had been bloc voting along racial lines, and that past discrimination had restricted the present opportunity of blacks to participate effectively in the political process, the District Court held that, although the state policy behind the at-large electoral system was "neutral in origin," the policy was being maintained for invidious purposes in violation of appellees' Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment rights. The court then ordered the county to be divided into districts for purposes of electing County Commissioners. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the District Court properly required appellees to prove that the at-large system was maintained for a discriminatory purpose, that the District Court's findings were not clearly erroneous, and that its conclusion that the at-large system was maintained for invidious purposes was "virtually mandated by the overwhelming proof."

Held:

1. The Court of Appeals did not err in concluding that the District Court applied the proper legal standard where it appears that the District Court demonstrated its understanding of the controlling standard by observing that a determination of discriminatory intent was "a requisite to a [102 S.Ct. 3274] finding of unconstitutional vote dilution" under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Pp. 616-622.

2. Where neither the District Court's ultimate findings of intentional discrimination nor its subsidiary findings of fact appear to be clearly erroneous, and such findings were agreed to by the Court of Appeals, this Court will not disturb the findings. Pp. 622-627.

3. Nor is there any reason to overturn the relief ordered by the District Court where neither that court nor the Court of Appeals discerned

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any special circumstances that would militate against utilizing single-member districts. Pp. 627-628.

639 F.2d 1358, affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 628. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 631.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case is whether the at-large system of elections in Burke County, Ga., violates the Fourteenth Amendment rights of Burke County's black citizens.

I

Burke County is a large, predominately rural county located in eastern Georgia. Eight hundred and thirty-one square miles in area,1 it is approximately two-thirds the size of the State of Rhode Island. According to the 1980 census, Burke County had a total population of 19,349, of whom 10,385, or 53.6%, were black.2 The average age of blacks

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living there is lower than the average age of whites, and therefore whites constitute a slight majority of the voting age population. As of 1978, 6,373 persons were registered to vote in Burke County, of whom 38% were black.3

The Burke County Board of Commissioners governs the county. It was created in 1911, see 1911 Ga. Laws 310-311, and consists of five members elected at large to concurrent 4-year terms by all qualified voters in the county. The county has never been divided into districts, either for the purpose of imposing a residency requirement on candidates or for the purpose of requiring candidates to be elected by voters residing in a district. In order to be nominated or elected, a candidate must receive a majority of the votes cast in the primary or general election, and a runoff must be held if no candidate receives a majority in the first primary or general election. Ga.Code § 34-1513 (Supp.1980). Each candidate must run for a specific seat on the Board, Ga.Code § 34-1015 (1978), and a voter may vote only once for any candidate. No Negro has ever been elected to the Burke County Board of Commissioners.

Appellees, eight black citizens of Burke County, filed this suit in 1976 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia. The suit was brought on behalf of all black citizens in Burke County. The class was certified in 1977. The complaint alleged that the county's system of at-large elections violates appellees' First, Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendment rights, as well as their rights under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1971, 1973, and 1983, by diluting the voting power of black citizens. Following a bench trial at which both sides introduced extensive evidence, the court issued an order on September 29, 1978, stating that appellees were entitled to prevail and ordering that Burke County be

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divided into five districts for purposes of electing County Commissioners. App. to Juris.Statement 62a. The court later issued detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law [102 S.Ct. 3275] in which it stated that, while the present method of electing County Commissioners was "racially neutral when adopted, [it] is being maintained for invidious purposes" in violation of appellees' Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment rights. Id. at 71a, 96a.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. Lodge v. Buxton, 639 F.2d 1358 (CA5 1981). It stated that, while the proceedings in the District Court took place prior to the decision in Mobile v. Bolden, 446 U.S. 55 (1980), the District Court correctly anticipated Mobile and required appellees to prove that the at-large voting system was maintained for a discriminatory purpose. 639 F.2d at 1375-1376. The Court of Appeals also held that the District Court's findings were not clearly erroneous, and that its conclusion that the at-large system was maintained for invidious purposes was "virtually mandated by the overwhelming proof." Id. at 1380. We noted probable jurisdiction, 454 U.S. 811 (1981), and now affirm.4

II

At-large voting schemes and multimember districts tend to minimize the voting strength of minority groups by permitting the political majority to elect all representatives of the district. A distinct minority, whether it be a racial, ethnic, economic, or political group, may be unable to elect any representatives in an at-large election, yet may be able to elect several representatives if the political unit is divided into single-member districts. The minority's voting power in a multimember district is particularly diluted when bloc voting occurs and ballots are cast along strict majority-minority lines. While multimember districts have been challenged for

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"their winner-take-all aspects, their tendency to submerge minorities and to overrepresent the winning party," Whitcomb v. Chavis, 403 U.S. 124, 158-159 (1971), this Court has repeatedly held that they are not unconstitutional per se. Mobile v. Bolden, supra, at 66; White v. Regester, 412 U.S. 755, 765 (1973); Whitcomb v. Chavis, supra, at 142. The Court has recognized, however, that multimember districts violate the Fourteenth Amendment if "conceived or operated as purposeful devices to further racial discrimination" by minimizing, canceling out or diluting the voting strength of racial elements in the voting population. Whitcomb v. Chavis, supra, at 149. See also White v. Regester, supra, at 765. Cases charging that multimember districts unconstitutionally dilute the voting strength of racial minorities are thus subject to the standard of proof generally applicable to Equal Protection Clause cases. Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 (1976), and Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Dev. Corp., 429 U.S. 252 (1977), made it clear that, in order for the Equal Protection Clause to be violated, "the invidious quality of a law claimed to be racially discriminatory must ultimately be traced to a racially discriminatory purpose." Washington v. Davis, supra, at 240. Neither case involved voting dilution, but in both cases, the Court observed that the requirement that racially discriminatory purpose or intent be proved applies to voting cases by relying upon, among others, Wright v. Rockefeller, 376 U.S. 52 (1964), a districting case, to illustrate that a showing of discriminatory intent has long been required in all types of equal protection cases charging racial discrimination. Arlington Heights, supra, at 265; Washington v. Davis, supra, at 240.5

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Arlington Heights and Washington v. Davis both rejected the notion that a law is invalid under the Equal Protection Clause simply because it may affect a greater proportion of one race than another. Arlington Heights, supra, at 265; Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. at 242. However, both cases recognized that discriminatory intent need not be proved by direct evidence.

Necessarily, an invidious discriminatory purpose may often be inferred from the totality of the relevant facts, including the fact, if it is true, that the law bears more heavily on one race than another.

Ibid. Thus, determining the existence of a discriminatory purpose "demands a sensitive inquiry into such circumstantial and direct evidence of intent as...

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