City of Lockhart v. United States
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460 U.S. 125 (1983)
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U.S. Supreme Court
City of Lockhart v. United States, 460 U.S. 125 (1983)
City of Lockhart v. United States
Argued November 3, 1982
Decided February 23, 1983
460 U.S. 125
Prior to 1973, appellant Texas city was a "general law" city governed by a commission consisting of a mayor and two commissioners, all serving the same 2-year terms. These offices were filled in even-numbered years through at-large elections using a "numbered post" system whereby the two commission posts were designated by number, and each candidate specified the post for which he or she sought election. In 1973, appellant became a "home rule" city, and adopted a new charter whereby it would be governed by a mayor and four councilmen serving staggered 2-year terms, with the mayor and two councilmen being elected in even-numbered years through at-large elections using the numbered-post system and the other two councilmen being similarly elected in odd-numbered years. Forty-seven percent of appellant's population are Mexican-American, but, as of 1977, less than 30% of the registered voters were Mexican-American. A Federal District Court in Texas, in a 1979 suit by the individual appellee and other Mexican-Americans, enjoined further elections under the new plan pending preclearance of electoral changes in the charter under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Attorney General precleared the changes except to the extent that they incorporate at-large elections, the numbered-post system, and staggered terms for councilmen. Appellant then filed suit under § 5 in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking a declaratory judgment that the remaining changes did not have the purpose or effect of denying the voting rights guaranteed by § 5. The District Court compared the new plan to what the old practice would have been without numbered posts on the ground that, under Texas law, appellant as a general-law city was not entitled to use a numbered-post system. The court held that numbered posts and staggered terms each have the effect of discriminating against protected minorities, particularly in view of the history of racial bloc voting in the city.
1. Appellant's entire 1973 election plan is subject to preclearance under § 5. Appellant admits that the addition of two seats to its governing body and the introduction of staggered terms are subject to § 5. Appellant also changed the nature of the "continuing" seats, since council posts one and two are not identical to the old commission posts one and two. Moreover, the discriminatory effect of the new seats cannot be determined
in isolation from the "preexisting" elements of the council. Similarly, the impact of any of the seats cannot be evaluated without considering the fact that they are all filled in elections using numbered posts. Pp. 460 U. S. 131-132.
2. The 1973 election plan will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. Pp. 460 U. S. 132-136.
(a) The proper comparison for purposes of § 5 is between the new system and the system actually in effect under the old practice, regardless of what state law might have required. Section 5 was intended to halt actual retrogression in minority voting strength without regard for the legality under state law of the practices already in effect. Pp. 460 U. S. 132-133.
(b) Under the principle that § 5's purpose is to insure that no changes in voting procedures will be made that would lead to retrogression in minority voting strength, Beer v. United States, 425 U. S. 130, the new system, when compared to the prior practice, does not have the effect of denying the right to vote guaranteed by § 5. Here, where appellant has used numbered posts for many years, effective single-shot voting would be equally impossible under both the old and new systems, and individual races could be highlighted under both systems. Similarly, the introduction of staggered terms has not reduced the opportunity for single-shot voting or increased the highlighting of individual races. Although there may have been no improvement in minorities' voting strength, neither has there been any retrogression. Pp. 460 U. S. 133-136.
559 F.Supp. 581, vacated and remanded.
POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, and in Parts I and II of which BLACKMUN, J., joined. MARSHALL, J., post, p. 460 U. S. 136, and BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 460 U. S. 148, filed opinions concurring in part and dissenting in part. WHITE, J., dissented.