|Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder|
|Argued April 29, 2009|
Decided June 22, 2009
|Full case name||Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Eric Holder, Attorney General|
|Citations||557 U.S. 193 ( more )|
|§5 of the Voting Rights Act stands, but districts should be better able to "bail out" of it per §4(a)|
|Majority||Roberts, joined by Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito|
Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, 557 U.S. 193 (2009), was a decision of the United States Supreme Court regarding Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and in particular its requirement that proposed electoral-law changes in certain states must be approved by the federal government. In a 9–0 decision, the Court concluded that the district was eligible to apply for an exemption (bailout) from this section per §4(a), because the definition of "political subdivision" in §14(c)(2) included a district of this nature. In an 8–1 opinion, the Court declined to rule on the constitutionality of that provision; citing the principle of Constitutional avoidance.
The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States. Established pursuant to Article III of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, it has original jurisdiction over a narrow range of cases, including suits between two or more states and those involving ambassadors. It also has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all federal court and state court cases that involve a point of federal constitutional or statutory law. The Court has the power of judicial review, the ability to invalidate a statute for violating a provision of the Constitution or an executive act for being unlawful. However, it may act only within the context of a case in an area of law over which it has jurisdiction. The court may decide cases having political overtones, but it has ruled that it does not have power to decide nonjusticiable political questions.
In United States constitutional law, the doctrine of constitutional avoidance dictates that a federal court should refuse to rule on a constitutional issue if the case can be resolved on a nonconstitutional basis. When a federal court is faced with a choice of ruling on a statutory, regulatory or constitutional basis, the Supreme Court has instructed the lower court to decide the federal constitutional issue only as a last resort: "The Court will not pass upon a constitutional question although properly presented by the record, if there is also present some other ground upon which the case may be disposed of." Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Auth., 297 U.S. 288, 347 (1936).
The appellant is a small utility district located northwest of Austin, Texas. The district is run by an elected board.
Austin is the capital of the U.S. state of Texas and the seat of Travis County, with portions extending into Hays and Williamson counties. It is the 11th-most populous city in the United States and the 4th-most populous city in Texas. It is also the fastest growing large city in the United States, the second most populous state capital after Phoenix, Arizona, and the southernmost state capital in the contiguous United States. As of the U.S. Census Bureau's July 1, 2017 estimate, Austin had a population of 950,715 up from 790,491 at the 2010 census. The city is the cultural and economic center of the Austin–Round Rock metropolitan statistical area, which had an estimated population of 2,115,827 as of July 1, 2017. Located in Central Texas within the greater Texas Hill Country, it is home to numerous lakes, rivers, and waterways, including Lady Bird Lake and Lake Travis on the Colorado River, Barton Springs, McKinney Falls, and Lake Walter E. Long.
The District never had any history or claims of racial discrimination in any of its elections. However, because the district is located in Texas, it was subject to the requirements of §5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (the Act, which applies to states with a history of discrimination, especially in the South given Jim Crow-era laws)and extends to any "political subdivision" within the state.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the height of the Civil Rights Movement on August 6, 1965, and Congress later amended the Act five times to expand its protections. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the Act secured the right to vote for racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Act is considered to be the most effective piece of federal civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.
However, another section of the Act, §4(a), allows a political subdivision to seek "bailout" (i.e., release from the preclearance requirements) if certain conditions are met. The District thus filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking bailout under §4(a). The District argued in the alternative that, if §5 were interpreted to render it ineligible for bailout, §5 was unconstitutional.
The United States District Court for the District of Columbia is a federal district court. Appeals from the District are taken to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The 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.
Arguments were held on April 29, 2009. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito questioned why Congress did not extend §5 to all 50 states.
In Part A, Roberts described the Fifteenth Amendment's problematic history of enforcement that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, much of which consists of a "scheme of stringent remedies aimed at areas where voting discrimination has been most flagrant."These remedies were bolstered by §5, which suspended any change in state election procedure until the federal government certified that it neither "has the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color." To confine these remedies to areas of flagrant disenfranchisement, the Act applied them only to States that met certain explicit standards. However, recognizing that this coverage formula "might bring within its sweep governmental units not guilty of any unlawful discriminatory voting practices, [Congress] afforded such jurisdictions immediately available protection in the form of ... [a] 'bailout' suit."
Roberts then laid out the requirements of such a suit under D. C. 42 U. S. C. §§1973b. He noted that §§4 and 5 were temporary provisions—they were originally expected to be in effect for only five years. §4(a), 79 Stat. 438. However, Congress reauthorized the Act in 1970 (for 5 years), 1975 (for 7 years), and 1982 (for 25 years); each reauthorization was litigated as unconstitutional, and each time the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality. Most recently, in 2006, Congress extended §5 for yet another 25 years. It was this latest extension that was now before the court.
Part B characterized the procedural history of the District's suit.
In Section II, Justice Roberts acknowledged the "undeniable" historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act. However, the Act "now raises serious constitutional concerns." In particular, §5, "which authorizes federal intrusion into sensitive areas of state and local policymaking, imposes substantial 'federalism costs,' "costs which have caused Members of this Court to express serious misgivings about the constitutionality of §5. Meanwhile, some of the conditions that the Court relied upon when it previously upheld this statutory scheme 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.
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."The District Court found that Congress's contributions to the record documented 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," 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." Here, the district does provide such other grounds: it raises a statutory claim that it is eligible to bail out under §§4 and 5. The existence of this claim invokes this principle of "Constitutional avoidance," as characterized in Escambia County v. McMillan .
The Court disagreed with Justice Thomas's argument that this principle has no pertinence here. He contends that even if the Court resolved the district's statutory argument in its favor, it would still have to reach the constitutional question, because the district's statutory argument would not afford it all the relief it seeks. However, the district expressly describes its constitutional challenge to §5 as being "in the alternative" to its statutory argument.The district's counsel confirmed this at oral argument.
In Section III, Roberts addressed the district's narrower argument that it is eligible for a bailout under the requirements of §§4 and 5. The question hinged on the intended definition of the term "[P]olitical subdivision" as used in §14(c)(2). The Court concluded that "all political subdivisions--not only those described in §14(c)(2)--are eligible to file a bailout suit," thus overturning the district court.
Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in part and dissented in part.
He concurred with the judgment that the District should be able to file a bailout suit. However, he dissented from the majority's decision not to address the constitutionality of §5, and argued that §5 is no longer constitutional(a position he would take once again in Shelby County v. Holder when the issue of §5's constitutionality would once again be raised).
The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on July 9, 1868, as one of the Reconstruction Amendments. Arguably one of the most consequential amendments to this day, the amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the American Civil War. The amendment was bitterly contested, particularly by the states of the defeated Confederacy, which were forced to ratify it in order to regain representation in Congress. The amendment, particularly its first section, is one of the most litigated parts of the Constitution, forming the basis for landmark decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) regarding racial segregation, Roe v. Wade (1973) regarding abortion, Bush v. Gore (2000) regarding the 2000 presidential election, and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) regarding same-sex marriage. The amendment limits the actions of all state and local officials, including those acting on behalf of such an official.
The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color, or previous condition of servitude". It was ratified on February 3, 1870, as the third and last of the Reconstruction Amendments.
A Congressional power of enforcement is included in a number of amendments to the United States Constitution. The language "The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation" is used, with slight variations, in Amendments XIII, XIV, XV, XIX, XXIII, XXIV, and XXVI. The variations in the pertinent language are as follows: The Thirteenth Amendment leaves out the word "the", the Fourteenth Amendment states "The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article." In addition to the amendments above, the Eighteenth Amendment states "The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997), was a United States Supreme Court case concerning the scope of Congress's enforcement power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. The case also had a significant impact on historic preservation.
A literacy test assesses a person's literacy skills: their ability to read and write. Literacy tests have been administered by various governments to immigrants. In the United States, between the 1850s and 1960s, literacy tests were administered to prospective voters, and this had the effect of disenfranchising African Americans and others.
Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356 (2001), was a United States Supreme Court case about Congress's enforcement powers under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court decided that Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act was unconstitutional, insofar as it allowed states to be sued by private citizens for money damages.
The Equal Protection Clause is a clause within the text of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The clause, which took effect in 1868, provides "nor shall any State [...] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws".
Katzenbach v. Morgan, 384 U.S. 641 (1966), was a United States Supreme Court case regarding the power of Congress, pursuant to Section 5 of the 14th Amendment, to enact laws that enforce and interpret provisions of the Constitution.
Mobile v. Bolden, 446 U.S. 55 (1980), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that disproportionate effects alone — i.e. absent purposeful discrimination — are insufficient to establish a claim of racial discrimination affecting voting.
The Reconstruction Amendments are the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution, adopted between 1865 and 1870, the five years immediately following the Civil War. The last time the Constitution had been amended was with the Twelfth Amendment more than 60 years earlier in 1804. The Reconstruction amendments were important in implementing the Reconstruction of the American South after the war. Their proponents saw them as transforming the United States from a country that was "half slave and half free" to one in which the constitutionally guaranteed "blessings of liberty" would be extended to the entire populace, including the former slaves and their descendants.
South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (1966), is a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court rejected a challenge from the state of South Carolina to the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required that some states submit changes in election districts to the Attorney General of the United States. The preclearance provisions were ruled constitutional and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enforced in full.
Katzenbach may refer to:
Black suffrage is Black people's right to vote. Black suffrage has been at issue in countries established under conditions of white supremacy. It may be limited through official or informal discrimination. In many places, black people have obtained suffrage through national independence. It should also be pointed out that "Black suffrage" in the United States in the aftermath of the American Civil War explicitly refers to "Black Male Suffrage". While women citizens, regardless of race, held rights to vote in some states, at the federal level, the U.S. Constitution was not interpreted to prohibit discrimination against women in voting, regardless of their race, until the passage of the 19th Amendment which was ratified by the United States Congress on August 18 and then certified by law on August 26, 1920.
Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333 (1890), was a United States Supreme Court case affirming, by a 9-0 vote, that federal laws against polygamy did not conflict with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Symm v. United States, 439 U.S. 1105 (1979), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court affirmed United States v. Texas, holding unconstitutional the denial to Prairie View students of the presumption of bona fide residency extended to other Waller County students.
Rogers v. Lodge, 458 U.S. 613 (1982), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that an at-large election system for a large rural county with a large black population violated the Equal Protection Clause.
Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529 (2013), is a landmark United States Supreme Court case regarding the constitutionality of two provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965: Section 5, which requires certain states and local governments to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices; and Section 4(b), which contains the coverage formula that determines which jurisdictions are subjected to preclearance based on their histories of discrimination in voting.
Congress enacted major amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006. Each of these amendments coincided with an impending expiration of some of the Act's special provisions, which originally were set to expire by 1970. However, in recognition of the voting discrimination that continued despite the Act, Congress repeatedly amended the Act to reauthorize the special provisions.