NAACP v. Hampton County
470 U.S. 166 (1985)

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U.S. Supreme Court

NAACP v. Hampton County, 470 U.S. 166 (1985)

NAACP v. Hampton County Election Commission

No. 83-1015

Argued November 28, 1984

Decided February 27, 1985

470 U.S. 166

Syllabus

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act provides that covered States or political subdivisions may not implement any election practices different from those in force on November 1, 1964, without first obtaining approval from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia or, alternatively, from the Attorney General. As of November 1, 1964, the public schools of Hampton County, South Carolina, a covered jurisdiction, were governed by an appointed County Board of Education and an elected Superintendent of Education. The county consists of two School Districts, one where the vast majority of white students live and the other predominantly black. Each District was governed by a Board of Trustees, who were appointed by the County Board of Education. In 1982, the South Carolina General Assembly enacted Act No. 547, providing that the members of the County Board of Education were to be elected at large, rather than appointed. The first election was to be held simultaneously with the general election in November, 1982, and prospective candidates were required to file with appellee Election Commission at least 45 days before the election. Act No. 547 was submitted to the Attorney General for approval under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and he informed the State that he had no objection to the change. But in the meantime, before the Attorney General had approved Act No. 547, Act No. 549 was enacted to abolish the County Board of Education and Superintendent and to devolve their duties upon the District Boards of Trustees, which were to be elected separately. The first trustee election was also scheduled to be held with the November general election, and candidates were required to file between August 16 and 31. Act No. 549 was also submitted to the Attorney General for clearance under § 5, and he initially interposed an objection. Nevertheless, the Election Commission, contemplating a reconsideration, continued to accept candidate filings under Act No. 549, and at the same time began accepting filings under Act No. 547. Since the Attorney General had not yet responded to the State's request for reconsideration of his objection to Act No. 549 by the date of the November general election, elections for the County Board of Education were held on that date

Page 470 U. S. 167

pursuant to Act No. 547, and no elections were held pursuant to Act No. 549. Thereafter the Attorney General withdrew his objection to Act No. 549, thereby rendering null and void Act No. 547 and the November elections held pursuant thereto. The South Carolina Attorney General then informed the Election Commission that Act No. 549 was in effect, and that an election pursuant thereto should be held. Accordingly, the Commission set March 15, 1983, as election day. Appellants, two civil rights organizations and several residents of Hampton County, filed suit in Federal District Court, seeking to enjoin the election as illegal under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The court denied relief, holding that no violation of § 5 had occurred, since, although Act No. 549 itself was a change under the Voting Rights Act, the scheduling of the election and the filing period were simply "ministerial acts necessary to accomplish the statute's purpose, and thus did not require preclearance." The court further held that, even if these acts were "changes," they had now been precleared along with the remaining provisions of Act No. 549.

Held: The use of an August filing period in conjunction with a March election, and the setting of the March election itself, were changes that should have been submitted to the Attorney General under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Pp. 470 U. S. 174-183.

(a) By opening the filing period for School District Trustees before preclearance and scheduling the election for a date four months later than that approved by the Attorney General, the county effectively altered the filing deadline from a date approximately two months before the election to one that was almost six months before the election. These changes cannot fairly be characterized as "ministerial" in light of the sweeping objectives of the Voting Rights Act. They possibly prevented relative latecomers from entering the race, and, in addition, a March election is likely to draw significantly fewer voters than an election held simultaneously with a November general election. The inquiry here is limited to whether the challenged changes have the potential for discrimination. These changes did have such a potential, and therefore should have been precleared under § 5. Pp. 470 U. S. 174-181.

(b) The changes cannot be said to have been implicitly approved when the Attorney General withdrew his objection to Act No. 549. Berry v. Doles, 438 U.S. 190, distinguished. Nor can the Attorney General be said to have validated the changes, retroactively or otherwise, because they were never before him. Pp. 470 U. S. 181-182.

Reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. POWELL and REHNQUIST, JJ., concurred in the judgment.

Page 470 U. S. 168

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