Multi-judge VRA CA case

Thu Nov 21 14:48:42 PST 1996

appeal from the united states district court for
the northern district of california
No. 95-1201.   Argued October 8, 1996-Decided November 6, 1996

As a jurisdiction covered by Sec. 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,
appellee Monterey County (hereinafter County) must obtain federal
 preclearance-either from the Attorney General of the United States
 or from the United States District Court for the District of Colum-
 bia-of any voting practice different from its practices on November
 1, 1968.  On that date, the County had nine separate and independent
 inferior court districts, the judges of which were elected exclusively
 by their respective districts' voters.  Between 1972 and 1983, the
 County adopted six ordinances, which ultimately merged all the
 districts into a single, county-wide municipal court served by judges
 whom County residents elected at large.  This consolidation took place
 against a backdrop of California laws, some of which governed courts
 generally and others of which applied to the County's courts specifi-
 cally.  In 1991, appellants, Hispanic voters residing in the County,
 sued in the District Court, alleging that the County had violated Sec. 5
 by failing to obtain federal preclearance of the consolidation ordinanc-
 es.  The three-judge District Court ordered the County to obtain
 federal preclearance of the challenged ordinances.  But the County
 did not submit the ordinances to the appropriate federal authorities. 
 Instead, the County began to work with appellants to develop a new
 judicial election plan that they believed would be less retrogressive
 than the at-large, county-wide election scheme.  The State of Califor-
 nia, as intervenor, opposed the parties' proposed plans.  Ultimately,
 the District Court ordered the County to conduct judicial elections
 under an at-large, county-wide election plan.  In essence, four years
 after the filing of the complaint, the District Court ordered the County
 to hold elections under the very same scheme that appellants had
 originally challenged under Sec. 5 as unprecleared.
  1.  This Court leaves to the District Court to resolve on remand
appellee State's threshold contentions that, although the County
perhaps should have submitted the consolidation ordinances for
federal preclearance before implementing them, intervening changes
in California law have transformed the County's judicial election
scheme into a state plan, for which Sec. 5 preclearance is not needed; that
appellants' suit was barred by laches; that it is constitutionally improper
to designate the County a covered jurisdiction under Sec. 5; and
that the consolidation ordinances did not alter a voting -standard,
practice, or procedure- subject to Sec. 5 preclearance.  Pp. 9-10.
  2.  The District Court's order that the County conduct elections
under its unprecleared, at-large judicial election plan conflicts with
Clark v. Roemer, 500 U. S. 646, 652-653, in which the Court held,
among other things, that a voting change subject to Sec. 5 is unenforce-
able unless precleared and that Sec. 5 plaintiffs are entitled to an
injunction prohibiting implementation of an unprecleared change.  Thus, an
injunction is required where, as here, a district court must decide
whether to allow illegal elections to go forward.  Id., at 654.  There
is no -extreme circumstance- here that might justify allowing the 1996
elections to proceed, cf. id., at 654-655, and the District Court has not
independently crafted a remedial electoral plan such as might render
the preclearance requirements inapplicable, see McDaniel v. Sanchez,
452 U. S. 130, 148-150.  Nor is the preclearance process' basic nature
changed by the complicating factors that a simple injunction could
leave the County without a judicial election system because a return
to the 1968 plan appears impractical, and that the parties seem
unable to fashion a plan that does not contravene California law. 
Congress gave exclusive authority to pass on an election change's
discriminatory effect or purpose to the federal authorities designated
in 5.  See id., at 151.  On a complaint alleging failure to preclear
election changes under Sec. 5, a three-judge district court may determine
only whether Sec. 5 covers a contested change, whether 5's approval
requirements were satisfied, and if the requirements were not satis-
fied, what temporary remedy, if any, is appropriate.  See City of
Lockhart v. United States, 460 U. S. 125, 129, n. 3.  The goal of a
three-judge district court facing a Sec. 5 challenge must be to ensure that
the covered jurisdiction submits its election plan to the appropriate
federal authorities for preclearance as expeditiously as possible.  Here,
by protracting this litigation in order to obtain a plan that complied
both with Sec. 5 and with state law, the District Court interposed itself
into the Sec. 5 approval process in a way that the statute does not con-
template.  Cf., e.g., Upham v. Seamon, 456 U. S. 37, 42-43 (per
curiam).  Pp. 10-15.
Reversed and remanded.
 O'Connor, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.
For the full opinion see the link at

Go to the Nov.96 link.

More information about the Election-Methods mailing list