Briscoe v. Bell

Decision Date20 June 1977
Docket NumberNo. 76-60,76-60
Citation97 S.Ct. 2428,53 L.Ed.2d 439,432 U.S. 404
PartiesDolph BRISCOE, Governor of Texas, et al., Petitioners, v. Griffin B. BELL, Attorney General of the United States, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

The provision of § 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that a determination of the Attorney General or Director of the Census that a State is covered by the Act "shall not be reviewable in any court" held absolutely to preclude judicial review of such a determination. Hence the District Court and Court of Appeals erred in holding that they had jurisdiction to review petitioners' claims that the Attorney General and Director of the Census (respondents) had erroneously applied § 4(b) in determining that Texas is covered by the 1975 amendments to the Act extending its protections to language minorities, such as Mexican-Americans. A "bailout" suit under § 4(a) to terminate coverage is Texas' sole remedy. Pp. 409-415.

(a) Such construction of § 4(b) is supported by its language and legislative history and by the Act's structure and its purpose to eradicate voting discrimination with all possible speed, as well as by this Court's interpretations of the Act. See South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 86 S.Ct. 803, 15 L.Ed.2d 769; Gaston County v. United States, 395 U.S. 285, 89 S.Ct. 1720, 23 L.Ed.2d 309; Morris v. Gressette, 432 U.S. 491, 97 S.Ct. 2411, 53 L.Ed.2d 506. Pp. 410-414.

(b) While the finality of determinations under § 4(b) may be "an uncommon exercise of congressional power," South Carolina v. Katzenbach, supra, 383 U.S., at 335, 86 S.Ct., at 822, nevertheless in attacking the pervasive evils and tenacious defenders of voting discrimination, Congress acted within its "power to enforce" the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments "by appropriate legislation." Pp. 414-415.

175 U.S.App.D.C. 297, 535 F.2d 1259, vacated and remanded.

David M. Kendall, Jr., Austin, Tex., for petitioners.

Howard E. Shapiro, Washington, D. C., for respondents.

Mr. Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

At issue in this case is the construction of § 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. § 1973b (1970 ed. and Supp. V). "The Voting Rights Act was designed by Congress to banish the blight of racial discrimination in voting." South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 308, 86 S.Ct. 803, 808, 15 L.Ed.2d 769 (1966). While the Act has had a dramatic effect in increasing the participation of black citizens in the electoral process, both as voters and elected officials, Congress has not viewed it as an unqualified success. 1 Most recently, as part of the 1975 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, 89 Stat. 400, Congress extended the Act's strong protections to cover language minorities that is, citizens living in environments where the dominant language is not English. Congress concluded after extensive hearings that there was "overwhelming evidence" showing "the ingenuity and prevalence of discriminatory practices that have been used to dilute the voting strength and otherwise affect the voting rights of language minorities." 2 Concern was particularly expressed over the plight of Mexican-American citizens in Texas, a State that had not been covered by the 1965 Act.3 This case arises out of Texas' efforts to prevent application of the 1975 amendments to it.


Petitioners, the Governor and Secretary of State of Texas, filed suit in the District Court for the District of Columbia against the Attorney General of the United States and the Director of the Census.4 These officials are responsible for determining whether the preconditions for application of the Act to particular jurisdictions are met. See § 4(b) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1973b(b) (1970 ed., Supp. V).5 Petitioners sought interlocutory injunctive relief to restrain official publication of respondents' determinations that Texas was covered by the 1975 amendments, and a "declaratory judgment" determining "how and under what circumstances the determinations . . . should be made." 6 Pet. for Cert. 6.

Respondents opposed the motion for a preliminary injunction, and moved to dismiss the suit for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted and for lack of jurisdiction to review determinations made under § 4(b). The jurisdictional argument was based on the final paragraph of § 4(b) which provides in pertinent part: "A determination or certification of the Attorney General or of the Director of the Census under this section . . . shall not be reviewable in any court . . . ." The District Court ruled, however, that this apparent preclusion of judicial review was not absolute. It found that there was jurisdiction to consider the "pure legal question" whether the Executive officials had correctly interpreted an Act of Congress. Reaching the merits of petitioners' claims, the District Court rejected them all and granted summary judgment for respondents.7

On appeal to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, respondents discussed but did not "take issue with" the jurisdictional ruling of the District Court. The Court of Appeals nevertheless considered the issue carefully, concluding:

"It is . . . apparent that even where the intent of Congress was to preclude judicial review, a limited jurisdiction exists in the court to review actions which on their face are plainly in excess of statutory authority. . . . The district court in the instant case was careful to note that the actual computations made by the Director of the Census were not within its jurisdiction to review, and that its scope of review was limited to determining whether the Director acted 'consistent with the apparent meaning of the statute.' Narrowly defined in this manner, the jurisdiction of the trial court to consider the Director's determinations is supported by precedent . . . ." Briscoe v. Levi, 175 U.S.App.D.C. 297, 303, 535 F.2d 1259, 1265 (1976).

Turning to the merits of petitioners' procedural and statutory construction arguments, the Court of Appeals thoroughly analyzed the statute and the legislative history. It found that respondents had correctly interpreted the Act and affirmed the judgment of the District Court.8

We granted certiorari sub nom. Briscoe v. Levi, 429 U.S. 997, 97 S.Ct. 522, 50 L.Ed.2d 607 (1976). Although respondents do not assert before us the jurisdictional objection raised in the District Court, we find that the courts below incorrectly concluded that they had power to review respondents' determinations that Texas was covered by the Act. See Philbrook v. Glodgett, 421 U.S. 707, 721, 95 S.Ct. 1893, 1902, 44 L.Ed.2d 525 (1975), and cases there cited. We therefore order dismissal of the complaint without reaching the merits of petitioners' claims.


(1) Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act could hardly prohibit judicial review in more explicit terms. It states that a "determination or certification of the Attorney General or of the Director of the Census under this section . . . shall not be reviewable in any court and shall be effective upon publication in the Federal Register." The language is absolute on its face and would appear to admit of no exceptions. The purposes and legislative history of the Act strongly support this straightforward interpretation.

The Voting Rights Act was conceived by Congress as a stern and powerful remedy to combat "an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution." South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S., at 309, 86 S.Ct., at 808. The stringent remedial provisions of the Act 9 were based on Congress' finding that "case-by-case litigation was inadequate to combat widespread and persistent discrimination in voting, because of the inordinate amount of time and energy required to overcome the obstructionist tactics invariably encountered . . . ." Id., at 328, 86 S.Ct., at 818. The intention of the drafters of the Act was "to shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims." Ibid. Reading § 4(b) as completely precluding judicial review thus implements Congress' intention to eradicate the blight of voting discrimination with all possible speed.

The drafters' specific comments on § 4(b) further support this view. The House Report stated that the coverage formula "requires certain factual determinations determinations that are final when made and not reviewable in court." H.R.Rep. No. 439, 89th Cong., 1st Sess., 25 (1965); U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1965, pp. 2437, 2456. The minority report criticized the Act precisely because it went into effect "without evidence, without a judicial proceeding or a hearing of any kind." Id., at 45; U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1965, p. 2473; see also id., at 43. The Report of the Senate Judiciary Committee sponsors of the Act also described § 4 as requiring "factual determinations . . . that are not reviewable in court." S.Rep. No. 162, 89th Cong., 1st Sess., pt. 3, p. 22 (1965).

Congress was well aware, however, that the simple formula of § 4(b) might bring within its sweep governmental units not guilty of any unlawful discriminatory voting practices. It afforded such jurisdictions immediately available protection in the form of an action to terminate coverage under § 4(a) of the Act. While this so-called "bailout" suit is subject to narrow procedural and substantive limitations,10 § 4(a) does instruct the Attorney General that if he "determines that he has no reason to believe that any . . . test or device" has been used for a prohibited purpose during the relevant time period, "he shall consent to the entry of . . . judgment" exempting the jurisdiction. See H.R.Rep. No. 439, supra, 14-15, 19.11

Although this Court has never considered at length the scope of the § 4(b) preclusion clause, we have indicated that the words of the statute mean what they say. In South Carolina v. Katzenbach, s...

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