Hathorn v. Lovorn

Decision Date15 June 1982
Docket NumberNo. 81-451,81-451
Citation457 U.S. 255,102 S.Ct. 2421,72 L.Ed.2d 824
PartiesRalph HATHORN, et al., Petitioners v. Mrs. Bobby LOVORN, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

A 1964 Mississippi statute provides that boards of trustees of municipal separate school districts in the State shall consist of five members, and that in any county in which a district embraces the entire county "in which Highways 14 and 15 intersect," one trustee shall be elected from each supervisors district. The Louisville School District is coextensive with Winston County, Miss., which is the only county in which Highways 14 and 15 intersect. Since 1960, the Louisville mayor and city aldermen appointed three of the five members of the District's Board of Trustees, and Winston County voters residing outside Louisville elected the other two members. The county officials never implemented the 1964 statute. Respondent Winston County voters filed an action against petitioner local officials in Mississippi Chancery Court seeking to enforce the 1964 statute. The court dismissed the complaint on the ground that the statute violated the state constitutional bar against local legislation. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed and remanded, striking only the statute's reference to Highways 14 and 15 and upholding the remainder of the statute. The Supreme Court without comment denied petitioners' petition for rehearing in which they argued for the first time that the Chancery Court could not implement the reformed statute until the change had been precleared under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On remand, the Chancery Court ordered an election pursuant to the redacted statute under procedures prescribed by the court, but directed petitioners to submit the election plan to the United States Attorney General for preclearance under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The Attorney General subsequently objected to the plan, and the Chancery Court ultimately concluded that its order would remain in force subject to compliance with the Voting Rights Act. Respondents once again appealed to the Supreme Court, which held that its prior decision was the law of the case and that the Chancery Court improperly conditioned the election on compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

Held:

1. The Mississippi Supreme Court's decision did not rest on independent and adequate state grounds so as to bar this Court's review of the federal issue. Where the state court's first decision did not appear final when rendered, the court's subsequent reliance on the law of the case does not prevent this Court from reviewing federal questions determined in the first appeal. Nor does the fact that petitioners' reliance upon the Voting Rights Act issue for the first time in their petition for rehearing may have been untimely under a Mississippi procedural rule constitute an independent and adequate state ground barring this Court's review of the federal question, where it appears that, if Mississippi still follows such a rule, it does not do so "strictly or regularly." Pp. 261-265.

2. The Mississippi courts had the power to decide whether § 5 of the Voting Rights Act applied to the change in election procedures sought by respondents, and must withhold further implementation of the disputed change until the parties demonstrate compliance with § 5. Both the language and purposes of the Act refute the notion that a state court asked to implement a change in the State's voting laws cannot inquire whether the change is subject to § 5 but must ignore that circumstance and enter a decree violating federal law. Section 14(b) of the Act, which provides that no court other than the District Court for the District of Columbia shall have jurisdiction to enter a declaratory judgment pursuant to § 5 governs only declaratory judgments approving proposed voting procedure changes. And nothing in the provisions of § 5, requiring an action under that section to be heard by a three-judge federal district court, or in the provisions of § 12(f) of the Act, giving federal district courts jurisdiction of proceedings under that section, negates the presumption that, at least when the issue arises collaterally, state courts have the power to decide whether a proposed change in election procedures requires preclearance under § 5. Granting state courts such power helps to insure compliance with the preclearance scheme. Pp. 265-271.

Miss., 399 So.2d 1356, reversed and remanded.

James C. Mayo, Louisville, Miss., for petitioners.

William Bradford Reynolds, Washington, D. C., for United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Laurel G. Weir, Philadelphia, Miss., for respondents.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to decide whether a state court may order implementation of a change in election procedure over objections that the change is subject to preclearance under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.1

I

Since 1960, the Louisville School District has been coextensive with Winston County, Miss. Until last December, the Louisville mayor and city aldermen appointed three of the five members of the District's Board of Trustees, and Winston County voters residing outside Louisville elected the other two members.

In 1964, the Mississippi Legislature enacted a statute providing in part:

"The boards of trustees of all municipal separate school districts, either with or without added territory, shall consist of five (5) members, each to be chosen for a term of five (5) years, but so chosen that the term of office of one (1) member shall expire each year. . . . [I]n any county in which a municipal separate school district embraces the entire county in which Highways 14 and 15 intersect, one (1) trustee shall be elected from each supervisors district." 1964 Miss.Gen.Laws, ch. 391, p. 563, codified, as amended, in Miss.Code Ann. § 37-7-203(1) (Supp.1981).

Winston County is the only Mississippi county in which Highways 14 and 15 intersect. Officials in that county never implemented § 37-7-203(1) because they believed the statute's reference to Highways 14 and 15 violated a state constitutional prohibition against local, private, or special legislation.2

In 1975, five Winston County voters filed an action in the Chancery Court of Winston County,3 seeking to enforce the neglected 1964 state statute.4 These plaintiffs, respondents here, named numerous Louisville and Winston County officials as defendants. The Chancery Court dismissed respond- ents' complaint, holding that the statute violated Mississippi's constitutional bar against local legislation. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed, striking only the specific reference to Highways 14 and 15 and upholding the remaining requirement that, "in any county in which a municipal separate school district embraces the entire county," each supervisors district must elect one trustee. Lovorn v. Hathorn, 365 So.2d 947 (1979) (en banc). The court then "remanded to the chancery court for further proceedings not inconsistent with [its] opinion." Id., at 952.

The local officials, petitioners here, filed a petition for rehearing, in which they argued for the first time that the Chancery Court could not implement the reformed statute until the change had been precleared under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The Mississippi Supreme Court denied the petition without comment, and this Court denied a petition for a writ of certiorari. Hathorn v. Lovorn, 441 U.S. 946, 99 S.Ct. 2167, 60 L.Ed.2d 1049 (1979).

On remand, the Chancery Court ordered an election pursuant to the redacted statute. The court set out detailed procedures governing the election, including the requirement that "[i]f no candidate receives a majority of the vote cast at any of said elections . . ., a runoff election shall be held . . . between the two candidates receiving the highest vote [in the first election]." Record 143. The court derived the latter requirement from Miss.Code Ann. § 37-7-217 (Supp.1981), which mandates runoffs in elections conducted under § 37-7-203(1). See Miss.Code Ann. § 37-7-209 (Supp.1981). The Chancery Court also agreed with petitioners' claim that the changes in election procedure fell within § 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and directed petitioners to submit the election plan to the United States Attorney General for preclearance. Record 141, 146-147.5

Upon review of petitioners' submission, the Attorney General objected to the proposed change in election procedure "insofar as it incorporate[d] a majority vote requirement." App. to Pet. for Cert. A-8. Because of the substantial black population in Winston County,6 an apparent pattern of racially polarized voting in the county, and the historical absence of blacks from various local governing boards, the Attorney General concluded that the runoff procedure could have a discriminatory effect. Ibid.7

Respondents attempted to overcome this obstacle by both joining the Attorney General as a defendant and persuading the Chancery Court to hold the election without the runoff procedure. The court, however, refused to join the Attorney General and held that state law unambiguously required runoff elections. Buffeted by apparently conflicting state and federal statutes, the Chancery Court concluded that its decree calling for an election would "remain in force subject to compliance with the Federal Voters Rights Act [sic] as previously ordered by this Court." Record 342.

Failing to obtain an election from the Chancery Court, respondents once again appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court. That court observed that its "prior decision, which the United States Supreme Court declined to reverse or alter in any respect, became and is the law of the case." Carter v. Luke, 399 So.2d 1356, 1358 (1981). The court explained that because the prior decision upheld a statute referring to the statute requiring runoffs, and...

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