Avery v. Midland County,
390 U.S. 474 (1968)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Avery v. Midland County, 390 U.S. 474 (1968)

Avery v. Midland County

No. 39

Argued November 14, 1967

Decided April 1, 1968

390 U.S. 474


The Midland County, Texas, Commissioners Court is the governing body for that county, and, like other such bodies, is established by the State's Constitution and statutes. It consists of five members -- a County Judge, elected at large from the entire county, and four commissioners, one elected from each of the four districts (precincts) into which the county is divided. Commissioners courts exercise broad governmental functions in the counties, including the setting of tax rates, equalization of assessments, issuance of bonds, and allocation of funds, and they have wide discretion over expenditures. One district of Midland County, which includes almost all the City of Midland, had a population of 67,906, according to 1963 estimates. The others, all rural areas, had populations respectively, of about 852; 414, and 828. In this action challenging the County's districting, petitioner alleged that the gross disparity in population distribution among the four districts violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Three of the four commissioners testified at trial that population was not a major factor in the districting process. The trial court ruled for petitioner that each district under the State's constitutional apportionment standard should have "substantially the same number of people." An intermediate appellate court reversed. The State Supreme Court reversed that judgment, holding that, under the Federal and State Constitutions, the districting scheme was impermissible "for the reasons stated by the trial court." It held, however, that the work actually done by the County Commissioners "disproportionately concerns the rural areas," and that such factors as "number of qualified voters, land areas, geography, miles of county roads, and taxable values" could justify apportionment otherwise than on a basis of substantially equal populations.

Held: Local units with general governmental powers over an entire geographic area may not, consistently with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, be apportioned among single member districts of substantially unequal population. Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U. S. 533 (1964). Pp. 390 U. S. 478-486.

Page 390 U. S. 475

(a) The Equal Protection Clause reaches the exercise of state power, whether exercised by the State or a political subdivision. P. 390 U. S. 479.

(b) Although the state legislature may itself be properly apportioned, the Fourteenth Amendment requires that citizens not be denied equal representation in political subdivisions which also have broad policymaking functions. P. 390 U. S. 481.

(c) The commissioners court performs some functions normally thought of as "legislative," and others typically characterized in other terms; but, regardless of the labels, this body has the power to make a large number of decisions having a broad impact on all the citizens of the county. Pp. 390 U. S. 482-483.

(d) Though the Midland County Commissioners may concentrate their attention on rural roads, their decisions also affect citizens in the City of Midland. P. 390 U. S. 484.

406 S.W.2d 422, vacated and remanded.

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