Avery v. Midland County, Texas, 39

Decision Date01 April 1968
Docket NumberNo. 39,39
Citation390 U.S. 474,88 S.Ct. 1114,20 L.Ed.2d 45
PartiesHank AVERY, Petitioner, v. MIDLAND COUNTY, TEXAS, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Lyndon L. Olson, Waco, Tex., for petitioner.

Francis X. Beytagh, Jr., Cleveland, Ohio, for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

W. B. Browder, Jr., and F. H. Pannill, Midland, Tex., for respondents.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, a taxpayer and voter in Midland County, Texas, sought a determination by this Court that the Texas Supreme Court erred in concluding that selection of the Midland County Commissioners Court from single-member districts of substantially unequal population did not necessarily violate the Fourteenth Amendment. We granted review, 388 U.S. 905, 87 S.Ct. 2106, 18 L.Ed.2d 1345 (1967), because application of the one man, one vote principle of Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 84 S.Ct. 1362, 12 L.Ed.2d 506 (1964), to units of local government is of broad public importance. We hold that petitioner as a resident of Midland County, has a right to a vote for the Commissioners Court of substantially equal weight to the vote of every other resident.

Midland County has a population of about 70,000. The Commissioners Court is composed of five members. One, the County Judge, is elected at large from the entire county, and in practice casts a vote only to break a tie. The other four are Commissioners chosen from districts. The population of those districts, according to the 1963 estimates that were relied upon when this case was tried, was respectively 67,906; 852; 414; and 828. This vast imbalance resulted from placing in a single district virtually the entire city of Midland, Midland County's only urban center, in which 95% of the county's population resides.

The Commissioners Court is assigned by the Texas Constitution and by various statutory enactments with a variety of functions. According to the commentary to Vernon's Texas Statutes, the court:

'is the general governing body of the county. It establishes a courthouse and jail, appoints numerous minor officials such as the county health officer, fills vacancies in the county offices, lets contracts in the name of the county, builds roads and bridges, administers the county's public welfare services, performs numerous duties in regard to elections, sets the county tax rate, issues bonds, adopts the county budget, and serves as a board of equalization for tax assessments.'1 The court is also authorized, among other responsibilities, to build and run a hospital, Tex.Rev.Civ.Stat.Ann., Art. 4492 (1966), an airport, id., Art. 351 (1964), and libraries, id., Art. 1677 (1962). It fixes boundaries of school districts within the county, id., Art. 2766 (1965), may establish a regional public housing authority, id., Art. 1269k, § 23a (1963), and determines the districts for election of its own members, Tex.Const., Art. V, § 18, Vernon's Ann.St.

Petitioner sued the Commissioners Court and its members in the Midland County District Court, alleging that the disparity in district population violated the Fourteenth Amendment and that he had standing as a resident, taxpayer, and voter in the district with the largest population. Three of the four commissioners testified at the trial all telling the court (as indeed the population statistics for the established districts demonstrated) that population was not a major factor in the districting process. The trial court ruled for petitioner. It made no explicit reference to the Fourteenth Amendment, but said the apportionment plan in effect was not 'for the convenience of the people,' the apportionment standard established by Art. V, § 18, of the Texas Constitution. The court ordered the defendant commissioners to adopt a new plan in which each precinct would have 'substantially the same number of people.'

The Texas Court of Civil Appeals reversed the judgment of the District Court and entered judgment for the respondents, 397 S.W.2d 919 (1965). It held that neither federal nor state law created a requirement that Texas county commissioners courts be districted according to population.

The Texas Supreme Court reversed the Court of Civil Appeals, 406 S.W.2d 422 (1966). It held that under 'the requirements of the Texas and the United States Constitutions' the present districting scheme was impermissible 'for the reasons stated by the trial court.' 406 S.W.2d, at 425. However, the Supreme Court disagreed with the trial court's conclusion that precincts must have substantially equal populations, stating that such factors as 'number of qualified voters, land areas, geography, miles of county roads and taxable values' could be considered. 406 S.W.2d, at 428. It also decreed that no Texas courts could redistrict the Commissioners Court. 'This is the responsibility of the commissioners court and is to be accomplished within the constitutional boundaries we have sought to delineate.' 406 S.W.2d at 428—429.2

In Reynolds v. Sims, supra, the Equal Protection Clause was applied to the apportionment of state legislatures. Every qualified resident, Reynolds determined, has the right to a ballot for election of state legislators of equal weight to the vote of every other resident, and that right is infringed when legislators are elected from districts of substantially unequal population. The question now before us is whether the Fourteenth Amendment likewise forbids the election of local government officials from districts of disparate population. As has almost every court which has addressed itself to this question,3 we hold that it does.4

The Equal Protection Clause reaches the exercise of state power however manifested, whether exercised directly or through subdivisions of the State.

'Thus the prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment extend to all action of the State denying equal protection of the laws; whatever the agency of the State taking the action * * *.' Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1, 17, 78 S.Ct. 1401, 1409, 3 L.Ed.2d 5 (1958).

Although the forms and functions of local government and the relationships among the various units are matters of state concern, it is now beyond question that a State's political subdivisions must comply with the Fourteenth Amendment.5 The actions of local government are the actions of the State. A city, town, or county may no more deny the equal protection of the laws than it may abridge freedom of speech, establish an official religion, arrest without probable cause, or deny due process of law.

When the State apportions its legislature, it must have due regard for the Equal Protection Clause. Similarly, when the State delegates lawmaking power to local government and provides for the election of local officials from districts specified by statute, ordinance, or local charter, it must insure that those qualified to vote have the right to an equally effective voice in the election process. If voters residing in oversize districts are denied their constitutional right to participate in the election of state legislators, precisely the same kind of deprivation occurs when the members of a city council, school board, or county governing board are elected from districts of substantially unequal population. If the five senators representing a city in the state legislature may not be elected from districts ranging in size from 50,000 to 500,000, neither is it permissible to elect the members of the city council from those same districts. In either case, the votes of some residents have greater weight than theose of others; in both cases the equal protection of the laws has been denied.

That the state legislature may itself be properly apportioned does not exempt subdivisions from the Fourteenth Amendment. While state legislatures exercise extensive power over their constituents and over the various units of local government, the States universally leave much policy and decisionmaking to their governmental subdivisions. Legislators enact many laws but do not attempt to reach those countless matters of local concern necessarily left wholly or partly to those who govern at the local level. What is more, in providing for the governments of their cities, counties, towns, and districts, the States characteristically provide for representative government—for decisionmaking at the local level by representatives elected by the people. And, not infrequently, the delegation of power to local units is contained in constitutional provisions for local home rule which are immune from legislative interference. In a word, institutions of local government have always been a major aspect of our system, and their responsible and responsive operation is today of increasing importance to the quality of life of more and more of our citizens. We therefore see little difference, in terms of the application of the Equal Protection Clause and of the principles of Reynolds v. Sims, between the exercise of state power through legislatures and its exercise by elected officials in the cities, towns, and counties.6 We are urged to permit unequal districts for the Midland County Commissioners Court on the ground that the court's functions are not sufficiently 'legislative.' The parties have devoted much effort to urging that alternative labels 'administrative' versus 'legislative'—be applied to the Commissioners Court. As the brief description of the court's functions above amply demonstrates, this unit of local government cannot easily be classified in the neat categories favored by civics texts. The Texas commissioners courts are assigned some tasks which would normally be thought of as 'legislative,' others typically assigned to 'executive' or 'administrative' departments, and still others which are 'judicial.' In this regard Midland County's Comissioners Court is representative of most of the general governing bodies of American cities, counties, towns, and villages.7 One knowledgeable commentator has...

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