557 U.S. 193 (2009), 08-322, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility Dist. Number One v. Holder

Docket Nº:08-322.
Citation:557 U.S. 193, 129 S.Ct. 2504, 174 L.Ed.2d 140, 77 U.S.L.W. 4539
Opinion Judge:ROBERTS, Chief Justice
Party Name:NORTHWEST AUSTIN MUNICIPAL UTILITY DISTRICT NUMBER ONE, Appellant v. Eric H. HOLDER, Jr., Attorney General, et al.
Attorney:Gregory S. Coleman, for appellant. Neal K. Katyal, for appellee Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General. Debo P. Adegbile, for intervenor-appel-lees. Gregory S. Coleman, Counsel of Record, Christian J. Ward, Ryan P. Bates, James E. Zucker, Project on Fair Representation, Yetter, Warden & Coleman, L...
Judge Panel:ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEVENS, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, GINSBURG, BREYER, and ALITO, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part. Justice THOMAS, concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.
Case Date:June 22, 2009
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 193

557 U.S. 193 (2009)

129 S.Ct. 2504, 174 L.Ed.2d 140, 77 U.S.L.W. 4539

NORTHWEST AUSTIN MUNICIPAL UTILITY DISTRICT NUMBER ONE, Appellant

v.

Eric H. HOLDER, Jr., Attorney General, et al.

No. 08-322.

United States Supreme Court

June 22, 2009

Argued April 29, 2009

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

[129 S.Ct. 2505]Syllabus [*]

The appellant is a small utility district with an elected board. Because it is located in Texas, it is required by §5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Act) to seek federal preclearance before it can change anything about its elections, even though there is no evidence it has ever dis­criminated on the basis of race in those elections. The district filed suit seeking relief under the "bailout" provision in §4(a) of the Act, which allows a "political subdivision" to be released from the pre-clearance requirements if certain conditions are met. The district ar­gued in the alternative that, if §5 were interpreted to render it ineli­gible for bailout, §5 was unconstitutional. The Federal District Court rejected both claims. It concluded that bailout under §4(a) is avail­able only to counties, parishes, and subunits that register voters, not to an entity like the district that does not register its own voters. It also concluded that a 2006 amendment extending §5 for 25 years was constitutional.

Held:

1. The historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are unde­niable, but the Act now raises serious constitutional concerns. The preclearance requirement represents an intrusion into areas of state and local responsibility that is otherwise [129 S.Ct. 2506] unfamiliar to our federal system. Some of the conditions that the Court relied upon in uphold­ing this statutory scheme in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 86 S.Ct. 803, 15 L.Ed.2d 769, and City of Rome v. United States, 446 U.S. 156, 100 S.Ct. 1548, 64 L.Ed.2d 119, have unquestionably improved. Those improvements are no doubt due in significant part to the Voting Rights Act itself, and stand as a monument to its success, but the Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs. The Act also differentiates between the States in ways that may no longer be justified.

At the same time, the Court recognizes that judging the constitutionality of an Act of Congress is "the gravest and most delicate duty that this Court is called upon to perform." Blodgett v. Holden, 275 U.S. 142, 147-148, 48 S.Ct. 105, 72 L.Ed. 206 (Holmes, J., concurring). Here the District Court found that the sizable record compiled by Congress to support exten­sion of §5 documented

Page 194

continuing racial discrimination and that §5 deterred discriminatory changes.

The Court will not shrink from its duty "as the bulwark of a limited Constitution against legislative encroachments," The Federalist No. 78, but "[i]t is . . . well established. . . that normally the Court will not decide a constitutional question if there is some other ground upon which to dispose of the case," Escambia County v. McMillan, 466 U.S. 48, 51, 104 S.Ct. 1577, 80 L.Ed.2d 36. Here, the district also raises a statutory claim that it is eligible to bail out under §§4 and 5, and that claim is sufficient to resolve the appeal. Pp. __.

2. The Act must be interpreted to permit all political subdivisions, including the district, to seek to bail out from the preclearance requirements. It is undisputed that the district is a "political subdivision" in the ordinary sense, but the Act also provides a narrower definition in § 14(c)(2): " '[P]olitical subdivision' shall mean any county or parish, except that where registration for voting is not conducted under the supervision of a county or parish, the term shall include any other subdivision of a State which conducts registration for vot­ing." The court below concluded that the district did not qualify for §4(a) bailout under this definition, but specific precedent, the Act's structure, and underlying constitutional concerns compel a broader reading.

This Court has already established that §14(c)(2)'s definition does not apply to the term "political subdivision" in §5's preclearance pro­vision. See, e.g., United States v. Sheffield Bd. of Comm'rs, 435 U.S. 110, 98 S.Ct. 965, 55 L.Ed.2d 148. Rather, the "definition was intended to operate only for purposes of determining which political units in nondesignated States may be separately designated for coverage under § 4(b)." Id., at 128-129, 98 S.Ct. 965. "[O]nce a State has been [so] designated . . ., [the] definition . . . has no operative significance in determining [§5's] reach." Dougherty County Bd. of Ed. v. White, 439 U.S. 32, 44, 99 S.Ct. 368, 58 L.Ed.2d 269. In light of these decisions, § 14(c)(2)'s definition should not constrict the availability of bailout either.

The Government responds that any such argument is foreclosed by City of Rome. In 1982, however, Congress expressly repudiated City of Rome. Thus, City of Rome's logic is no longer applicable. The Government's contention that the district is subject to §5 under Sheffield not because it is a "political subdivision" but because it is a "State" is counterintuitive and similarly untenable after the 1982 amendments. The Government's contrary interpretation has helped to render the bailout provision all but a nullity. [129 S.Ct. 2507] Since 1982, only 17 jurisdictions— out of the more than 12,000 covered political subdivisions—have suc­cessfully bailed out of the Act. It is unlikely that Congress intended the provision to have such limited effect. Pp. __.

573 F.Supp.2d 221, reversed and remanded.

Page 195

Gregory S. Coleman, for appellant.

Neal K. Katyal, for appellee Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General.

Debo P. Adegbile, for intervenor-appel-lees.

Gregory S. Coleman, Counsel of Record, Christian J. Ward, Ryan P. Bates, James E. Zucker, Project on Fair Representation, Yetter, Warden & Coleman, L.L.P., Austin, Texas, for Appellant.

Jon M. Greenbaum, Robert A. Kengle, Marcia Johnson-Blanco, Mark A. Posner, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Washington, D.C., Counsel for Intervenor-Appellees Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches and Austin Branch of the NAACP, Laughlin McDonald, American Civil Liberties Union, Atlanta, GA, for Intervenor-Appellee Nathaniel Lesane, Seth P. Waxman, Paul R.Q. Wolfson, Counsel of Record, Jonathan E. Nuechterlein, Ariel B. Waldman, Rebecca G. Deutsch, Micah S. Myers, Joshua M. Salzman, Nathan A. Brugge-man, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, Washington, D.C., for Intervenor-Appellees Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches and Austin Branch of the NAACP, Steven R. Shapiro, American

Civil Liberties Union, New York, NY, Michael Kator, Kator, Parks & Weiser, P.L.L.C, Washington, D.C., Jeremy Wright, Kator, Parks & Weiser, P.L.L.C, Austin, TX, Lisa Graybill, Legal Director, ACLU Foundation of Texas, Austin, TX, Arthur B. Spitzer, ACLU of the National Capital Area, Washington, D.C., for Intervenor-Appellee Nathaniel Lesane, Angela Ciccolo, Anson Asaka, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Inc., NAACP National Office, Baltimore, MD, for Intervenor-Appellees Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches and Austin Branch of the NAACP.

Renea Hicks, Law Office of Max Renea Hicks, Austin, Texas, for Appellee Travis County.

John Payton, Director-Counsel, Jacqueline A. Berrien, Counsel of Record, Debo P. Adegbile, Ryan P. Haygood, Jenigh J. Garrett, Danielle Y. Conley, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., New York, NY, Kristen M. Clarke, Joshua Civin, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., Washington, D.C., Samuel Spital, Holland & Knight, New York, NY, for Intervenors-Appellees Rodney and Nicole Louis; Winthrop and Yvonne Graham; and Wendy, Jamal and Marisa Richardson.

Kathryn Kolbert, People for the American Way Foundation, Washington, D.C., for Intervenor-Appellee People for the American Way.

Nina Perales, Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., San Antonio, TX, for Intervenors-Appellees Lisa and David Diaz and Gabriel Diaz.

Jose Garza, George Korbel, Judith A. Sanders-Castro, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Inc., San Antonio, TX, for Intervenors-Appellees Angle Garcia, Jovita Ca-sares and Ofelia Zapata.

[129 S.Ct. 2508]Edwin S. Kneedler, Acting Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Loretta King, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Neal Kumar Katyal, Deputy Solicitor General, Douglas Hallward-Driemeier, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Steven H. Rosen-baum, Diana K. Flynn, Sarah E. Harrington, T. Christian Herren, Jr., Attorneys, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for Federal Appellee.

Gregory G. Garre, Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Grace Chung Becker, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Daryl Joseffer, Deputy Solicitor General, Eric D. Miller, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Diana K., Flynn, Sarah E. Harrington, T. Christian Herren, Jr., Attorneys, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for appellants.

ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEVENS, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, GINSBURG, BREYER, and ALITO, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.

OPINION

Page 196

ROBERTS, Chief Justice

The plaintiff in this case is a small utility district rais­ing a big questionthe constitutionality of §5 of the Vot­ing Rights Act. The district has an elected board, and is required by §5 to seek preclearance from federal authori­ties in Washington, D. C., before it can change anything about those elections. This is required even though there has never been any evidence of racial discrimination...

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