McCain v. Lybrand,
465 U.S. 236 (1984)

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U.S. Supreme Court

McCain v. Lybrand, 465 U.S. 236 (1984)

McCain v. Lybrand

No. 82-282

Argued October 31, 1983

Decided February 21, 1984

465 U.S. 236


Prior to 1966, Edgefield County, S.C. was governed by a three-member Board of County Commissioners, consisting of the County Supervisor, who was elected at-large, and two members who were appointed by the Governor. There were no residency requirements for the Commissioners. In 1966, the state legislature enacted a statute creating a new form of government for the county and altering its election practices. A three-member County Council was established, and the county was divided into three residency districts for the purpose of electing Council members. Voters throughout the county cast votes for a candidate from each district, and the candidate in each district with the most votes occupies that district's seat on the Council. The 1966 statute was not submitted to federal officials for approval as required by § 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1971, the 1966 statute was amended so as to increase the number of residency districts, and thus the number of Council members, from three to five, necessarily resulting in new district boundaries. This amendment was submitted to the Attorney General for his approval pursuant to § 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and, after requesting and receiving additional information (including a copy of the 1966 statute and information concerning previous candidates, election results, and residency district boundaries), the Attorney General stated that he did not object "to the change in question." Thereafter, appellants, black voters residing in the county, brought a class action in Federal District Court against appellee county officials, challenging the county's election practices on constitutional grounds. Ultimately, after protracted litigation and after appellants had filed an amended complaint alleging that the 1966 Act had never been submitted to federal officials for approval as required by § 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the District Court held that the Attorney General's request for additional information indicated that he had considered all aspects of the electoral scheme, including the changes effected in the 1966 Act, and that, since the 1971 amendment retained such changes, the lack of objection to the 1971 submission necessarily constituted approval of those changes as well, and rendered the failure to preclear the 1966 Act moot.

Held: The Attorney General's lack of objection to the 1971 submission cannot be deemed to have the effect of ratifying the changes embodied in the 1966 Act. Pp. 465 U. S. 243-258.

Page 465 U. S. 237

(a) In light of the structure, purpose, history, and operation of § 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a State that seeks preclearance of changes in voting procedures pursuant to § 5 from the Attorney General, rather than a declaratory judgment from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, must do so in an unambiguous and recordable manner. The Act does not contemplate that a "submission" occurs when the Attorney General merely becomes aware of the legislation in question. The Act's purposes would be subverted if the Attorney General could be deemed to have approved a voting change when the proposal was neither properly submitted nor in fact evaluated by him. Pp. 465 U. S. 243-250.

(b) Here, the submission of the 1971 amendment to the Attorney General required him to determine whether either the change in the district boundaries or the change in the number of districts had a discriminatory purpose or effect, but would not appear to have required him to pass on whether the 1966 changes represented a setback for minority voters. The additional information requested and received by the Attorney General does not suggest that he approved changes that he was not requested to approve, and did not enable him to ascertain whether a covered change was made by the 1966 Act, much less evaluate whether the 1966 changes were discriminatory in purpose or effect when compared to prior practices. In order to pass on the 1966 Act, the Attorney General would have needed information concerning the pre-1966 election law and its practical effects, and he neither requested nor received such information. Pp. 465 U. S. 250-254.

(c) When a jurisdiction adopts legislation that makes clearly defined changes in its election practices, sending that legislation to the Attorney General merely with a general request for preclearance pursuant to § 5 constitutes a submission of the changes made by the enactment, and cannot be deemed a submission of changes made by previous legislation that themselves were independently subject to § 5 preclearance. A request for preclearance of certain identified changes in election practices that fails to identify other practices as new ones cannot be considered an adequate submission of the latter practices. Here, the 1971 submission failed to inform the Attorney General that the provisions of the 1971 amendment which merely recodified various practices contained in the 1966 Act were themselves changes that might give rise to an inference of discrimination. To the extent there was any ambiguity in the scope of the preclearance request, the structure and purpose of the preclearance requirement plainly counsel against resolving such ambiguities in favor of the submitting jurisdiction in the circumstances of this case. Pp. 465 U. S. 256-257.

Reversed and remanded.

Page 465 U. S. 238

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

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