512 U.S. 874 (1994), 91-2012, Holder v. Hall

Docket Nº:Case No. 91-2012
Citation:512 U.S. 874, 114 S.Ct. 2581, 129 L.Ed.2d 687, 62 U.S.L.W. 4728
Party Name:HOLDER, individually and in his official capacity as COUNTY COMMISSIONER FOR BLECKLEY COUNTY, GEORGIA, et al. v. HALL et al.
Case Date:June 30, 1994
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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512 U.S. 874 (1994)

114 S.Ct. 2581, 129 L.Ed.2d 687, 62 U.S.L.W. 4728

HOLDER, individually and in his official capacity as COUNTY COMMISSIONER FOR BLECKLEY COUNTY, GEORGIA, et al.

v.

HALL et al.

Case No. 91-2012

United States Supreme Court

June 30, 1994

Argued October 4, 1993

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Bleckley County, Georgia, has always had a form of government whereby a single commissioner holds all legislative and executive authority. In 1985, the state legislature authorized the county to adopt by referendum a multimember commission consisting of five members elected from single-member districts and a chair elected at large, but voters defeated the proposal, although they had previously approved a five-member district plan for the county school board. Respondents, black voters and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, filed this action. The District Court rejected their constitutional claim that the single-member commission was enacted or maintained with an intent to exclude or limit the political influence of the county's black community in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The court also ruled against their claim that the commission's size violated § 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, finding that respondents satisfied only one of the three preconditions established in Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30. The Court of Appeals reversed on the statutory claim, holding that the totality of the circumstances supported § 2 liability and remanding for a formulation of a remedy, which it suggested could be modeled after the county's school board election system.

Held:

The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded. 955 F.2d 1563, reversed and remanded.

Justice Kennedy, joined by The Chief Justice and Justice O'Connor, concluded in Parts I, II-A, and III:

1. The size of a governing authority is not subject to a vote dilution challenge under § 2. Along with determining whether the Gingles preconditions are met and whether the totality of the circumstances support a liability finding, a court in a § 2 suit must find a reasonable alternative practice as a benchmark against which to measure the existing voting practice. However, there is no objective and workable standard for choosing a reasonable benchmark where, as here, the challenge is brought to the government body's size. There is no reason why one

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size should be picked over another. Respondents have offered no convincing reasons why the benchmark should be a hypothetical fivemember commission. That such a commission is the most common form of governing authority in the State does not bear on dilution, since a sole commissioner system has the same impact on voting strength whether it is shared by none, or by all, of Georgia's counties. That the county was authorized to expand its commission, and that it adopted a five-member school board, are likewise irrelevant considerations. At most, they indicate that the county could change the size of its governing body with minimal disruption, but the failure to do so says nothing about the effects the current system has on the county citizens' voting power. Pp. 880-882.

2. The case is remanded for consideration of respondents' constitutional claim. P. 885.

Justice Kennedy, joined by The Chief Justice, concluded in Part II-B that a voting practice subject to the preclearance requirement of § 5 of the Act is not necessarily subject to a dilution challenge under § 2. The sections differ in structure, purpose, and application; and in contrast to § 2 cases, a baseline for comparison under § 5 exists by definition: A proposed voting practice is measured against the existing practice to determine whether retrogression would result from the proposed change. Pp. 882-885.

Justice O'Connor concluded that precedent compels the conclusion that the size of a governing authority is both a "standard, practice, or procedure" under § 2 and a "standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting" under § 5, but agreed that a § 2 dilution challenge to a governing authority's size cannot be maintained because there can never be an objective alternative benchmark for comparison. Pp. 885-888.

Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, concluded that the size of a governing body cannot be attacked under § 2 because it is not a "standard, practice, or procedure" within the terms of § 2. An examination of § 2's text makes it clear that those terms refer only to practices that affect minority citizens' access to the ballot. Districting systems and electoral mechanisms that may affect the "weight" given to a ballot duly cast and counted are simply beyond the purview of the Act. The decision in Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, which interprets § 2 to reach claims of vote "dilution," should be overruled. Gingles was based upon a flawed method of statutory construction and has produced an interpretation of § 2 that is at odds with the text of the Act and that has proved unworkable in practice. Pp. 891-946.

Kennedy, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., joined, and in all but Part II-B of

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which O'Connor, J., joined. O'Connor, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 885. Thomas, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Scalia, J., joined, post, p. 891. Blackmun, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined, post, p. 946. Ginsburg, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 956. Stevens, J., filed a separate opinion, in which Blackmun, Souter, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined, post, p. 957.

R. Napier Murphy argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs was W. Lonnie Barlow.

Christopher Coates argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Laughlin McDonald, Kathleen Wilde, Neil Bradley, Mary Wyckoff, John A. Powell, and Steven R. Shapiro.[*]

Justice Kennedy announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which The Chief Justice joined, and in all but Part II-B of which Justice O'Connor joined.

This case presents the question whether the size of a governing authority is subject to a vote dilution challenge under § 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. § 1973.

I

The State of Georgia has 159 counties, one of which is Bleckley County, a rural county in central Georgia. Black persons make up nearly 20% of the eligible voting population in Bleckley County. Since its creation in 1912, the county has had a single-commissioner form of government for the exercise of "county governing authority." See Ga. Code Ann. § 1-3-3(7) (Supp. 1993). Under this system, the

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Bleckley County Commissioner performs all of the executive and legislative functions of the county government, including the levying of general and special taxes, the directing and controlling of all county property, and the settling of all claims. Ga. Code Ann. § 36-5-22.1 (1993). In addition to Bleckley County, about 10 other Georgia counties use the single-commissioner system; the rest have multimember commissions.

In 1985, the Georgia Legislature authorized Bleckley County to adopt a multimember commission consisting of five commissioners elected from single-member districts and a single chairman elected at large. 1985 Ga. Laws, p. 4406. In a referendum held in 1986, however, the electorate did not adopt the change to a multimember commission. (In a similar referendum four years earlier, county voters had approved a five-member district plan for the election of the county school board.)

In 1985, respondents (six black registered voters from Bleckley County and the Cochran/Bleckley County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) challenged the single-commissioner system in a suit filed against petitioners (Jackie Holder, the incumbent county commissioner, and Probate Judge Robert Johnson, the superintendent of elections). The complaint raised both a constitutional and a statutory claim.

In their constitutional claim, respondents alleged that the county's single-member commission was enacted or maintained with an intent to exclude or to limit the political influence of the county's black community in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. At the outset, the District Court made extensive findings of fact about the political history and dynamics of Bleckley County. The court found, for example, that when the county was formed in 1912, few, if any, black citizens could vote. Indeed, until passage of federal civil rights laws, Bleckley County "enforced racial segregation in all aspects of local government—courthouse,

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jails, public housing, governmental services—and deprived its black citizens of the opportunity to participate in local government." 757 F.Supp. 1560, 1562 (MD Ga. 1991). And even today, though legal segregation no longer exists, "more black than white residents of Bleckley County continue to endure a depressed socio-economic status." Ibid. No black person has run for or been elected to the office of Bleckley County Commissioner, and the District Judge stated that, having run for public office himself, he "wouldn't run if [he] were black in Bleckley [C]ounty." See 955 F.2d 1563, 1571 (CA11 1992).

The court rejected respondents' constitutional contention, however, concluding that respondents "ha[d] failed to provide any evidence that Bleckley County's single member county commission [wa]s the product of original or continued racial animus or discriminatory intent." 757 F. Supp., at1571. Nor was there evidence that the...

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