Morris v. Gressette,
432 U.S. 491 (1977)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Morris v. Gressette, 432 U.S. 491 (1977)

Morris v. Gressette

No. 75-1583

Argued April 18-19, 1977

Decided June 20, 1977

432 U.S. 491


Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 establishes two alternative methods by which States subject to the Act can obtain federal preclearance review of a change in their voting laws: (1) the State may file a declaratory judgment action in the District Court for the District of Columbia and subsequently may implement such change if that court declares that the change has no racially discriminatory purpose or effect; or (2) the State may submit the change to the Attorney General and subsequently may enforce the change if the Attorney General has not interposed an objection within 60 days. A plan reapportioning the South Carolina Senate, enacted into law on May 6, 1972, and filed with the District Court for the District of South Carolina, which had invalidated a previous plan in a consolidated action challenging its constitutionality, was submitted to the Attorney General on May 12 for preclearance review under § 5. On May 23, the District Court found the new plan constitutional, and on June 30, the Attorney General notified South Carolina that he would interpose no objection, but would defer to the court's determination. Thereafter, another suit was brought in the District Court for the District of Columbia, challenging the Attorney General's failure to object to the new plan, and, in response to that court's order of May 16, 1973, to make a reasoned determination as to the constitutionality of the new plan, the Attorney General stated that, in his view, it was unconstitutional, but that he still refused to interpose an objection in deference to the ruling of the District Court for the District of South Carolina. However, on July 19, 1973, the District Court for the District of Columbia directed the Attorney General to consider the new plan without regard to the other District Court's decision, and, the next day, the Attorney General interposed an objection to the plan. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed, holding that the Attorney General's initial failure to interpose an objection was reviewable, and that § 5 required him to make an independent determination on the merits of the § 5 issues. The present suit was then filed by appellant South Carolina voters in the District Court for the District of South Carolina, seeking to enjoin implementation

Page 432 U. S. 492

of the new plan on the ground that the Attorney General had interposed an objection and the State had not subsequently obtained a favorable declaratory judgment from the District Court for the District of Columbia. A three-judge court dismissed the complaint, holding that the collateral estoppel doctrine did not preclude it from considering the State's contention that, notwithstanding the Court of Appeals' decision in the previous action, the requirements of § 5 were satisfied when the Attorney General failed to interpose an objection within 60 days after submission of the new plan to him, and that the Administrative Procedure Act did not authorize judicial review of the Attorney General's initial determination to defer to the ruling that the new plan was constitutional, and that therefore the Attorney General's failure to interpose a timely objection left South Carolina free to implement the new plan.

Held: The objection interposed by the Attorney General to the new plan on July 20, 1973, nunc pro tunc, is invalid, and therefore South Carolina is free to implement such plan. Pp. 432 U. S. 499-507.

(a) The nature of the § 5 remedy, which has been characterized as an "unusual" and "severe" procedure, strongly suggests that Congress did not intend the Attorney General's actions under that provision to be subject to judicial review. Unlike the first alternative method of obtaining a declaratory judgment, § 5 does not condition implementation of changes in voting laws under the second method of compliance on an affirmative statement by the Attorney General that the change is without racially discriminatory purpose or effect, but, to the contrary, compliance with § 5 under this second method is measured solely by the absence, for whatever reason, of a timely objection on the Attorney General's part. Pp. 432 U. S. 501-503.

(b) In light of the potential severity of the § 5 remedy, the statutory language, and the legislative history, it is clear that Congress intended to provide covered jurisdictions with an expeditious alternative to declaratory judgment actions by providing submission to the Attorney General as such an alternative. Since judicial review of the Attorney General's action would unavoidably extend the period specified in the statute, it is necessarily precluded. Pp. 432 U. S. 504-505.

(c) Where the discriminatory character of an enactment is not detected upon review by the Attorney General, it can be challenged in traditional constitutional litigation, but it cannot be questioned in a suit seeking judicial review of the Attorney General's exercise of discretion under § 5, or his failure to object within the statutory period. Pp. 432 U. S. 505-507.

425 F.Supp. 331, affirmed.

Page 432 U. S. 493

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 432 U. S. 507. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 432 U. S. 517.

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