Ball v. James
Annotate this Case
451 U.S. 355 (1981)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Ball v. James, 451 U.S. 355 (1981)
Ball v. James
Argued February 23, 1981
Decided April 29, 1981
451 U.S. 355
The Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District (District), a governmental entity, stores and delivers untreated water to the owners of 236,000 acres of land in central Arizona, and, to subsidize its water operations, sells electricity to hundreds of thousands of people in an area including a large part of metropolitan Phoenix. Under state law, the system for electing the District's directors limits voting eligibility to landowners and apportions voting power according to the number of acres owned. A class of registered voters living within the District but owning either no land or less than an acre of land there filed suit, claiming that the election scheme violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. They alleged that, because the District has such governmental powers as the authority to condemn land and sell tax-exempt bonds, and because it sells electricity to virtually half the State's population and exercises significant influence on flood control and environmental management, its policies and actions substantially affect all District residents, regardless of property ownership. The District Court upheld the constitutionality of the voting scheme, but the Court of Appeals reversed. It held that the case was governed by the one-person, one-vote principle established in Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U. S. 533, rather than by the exception to that principle established in Salyer Land Co. v. Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage Dist., 410 U. S. 719, which upheld a state law permitting only landowners to vote for directors of a water district because of its special limited purpose and the disproportionate effect of its activities on landowners as a group.
Held: The District's purpose is sufficiently specialized and narrow and its activities bear on landowners so disproportionately as to release it from the strict demands of the Reynolds principle. As in Salyer, supra, the voting scheme for the District is constitutional because it bears a reasonable relationship to its statutory objectives. Pp. 451 U. S. 362-371.
(a) The distinctions between the more diverse and extensive services furnished by the District here and those furnished by the water district involved in Salyer, supra, do not amount to a constitutional difference. The District does not exercise the sort of governmental
powers that invoke the strict demands of Reynolds. It cannot impose ad valorem property taxes or sales taxes or enact laws governing citizens' conduct. Nor does it administer normal government functions such as the maintenance of streets, the operation of schools, or sanitation, health, or welfare services. Pp. 451 U. S. 365-336.
(b) The District's water functions, which constitute its primary and originating purpose, are relatively narrow. Although, unlike in Salyer, as much as 40% of the water delivered by the District goes for nonagricultural, urban purposes, the constitutionally relevant fact is that all water is distributed according to land ownership, and the District cannot control the use to which the water is put by the landowners. Pp. 451 U. S. 367-368.
(c) Nor is the legality of the District's property-based voting scheme affected by the fact that, as one of the largest suppliers of electric power in the State, it meets most of its capital and operating costs by the selling of such power. The provision of electricity is not, in itself, the sort of general or important governmental function that would make the government provider subject to the Reynolds doctrine. And, in any event, the District's electric power functions are only incidental to, and thus cannot change the character of, its water functions. Pp. 451 U. S. 368-370.
(d) And the District's functions bear a disproportionate relationship to the specific class of people whom the system makes eligible to vote. Voting landowners are the only residents of the District whose lands are subject to liens to secure District bonds, who are subject to the District's acreage-based taxing power, and who committed capital to the District. Pp. 451 U. S. 370-371.
613 F.2d 180, reversed and remanded.
STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 451 U. S. 372. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 451 U. S. 374.