Georgia v. Ashcroft
Annotate this Case
539 U.S. 461 (2003)
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OCTOBER TERM, 2002
GEORGIA v. ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL, ET AL.
APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
No. 02-182. Argued April 29, 2003-Decided June 26, 2003
Georgia's 1997 State Senate districting plan is the benchmark plan for this litigation. That plan drew 56 districts, 11 of them with a total black population of over 50%, and 10 of them with a black voting age population of over 50%. The 2000 census revealed that these numbers had increased so that 13 districts had a black population of at least 50%, with the black voting age population exceeding 50% in 12 of those districts. After the 2000 census, the Georgia General Assembly began redistricting the Senate once again. It is uncontested that a substantial majority of Georgia's black voters vote Democratic, and that all elected black representatives in the General Assembly are Democrats. The Senator who chaired the subcommittee that developed the new plan testified he believed that as a district's black voting age population increased beyond what was necessary to elect a candidate, it would push the Senate more toward the Republicans, and correspondingly diminish the power of African-Americans overall. Thus, part of the Democrats' strategy was not only to maintain the number of majority-minority districts and increase the number of Democratic Senate seats, but also to increase the number of so-called "influence" districts, where black voters would be able to exert a significant-if not decisive-force in the election process. The new plan therefore "unpacked" the most heavily concentrated majority-minority districts in the benchmark plan, and created a number of new influence districts, drawing 13 districts with a majority-black voting age population, 13 additional districts with a black voting age population of between 30%-50%, and 4 other districts with a black voting age population of between 25%-30%. When the Senate adopted the new plan, 10 of the 11 black Senators voted for it. The Georgia House of Representatives passed the plan with 33 of the 34 black Representatives voting for it. No Republican in either body voted for the plan, making the votes of the black legislators necessary for passage. The Governor signed the Senate plan into law in 2001.
Because Georgia is a covered jurisdiction under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it must submit any new voting "standard, practice, or procedure" for preclearance by either the United States Attorney General or the District Court for the District of Columbia in order to ensure that the change "does not have the purpose [or] effect of denying
or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color," 42 U. S. C. § 1973c. No change should be precleared if it "would lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise." Beer v. United States, 425 U. S. 130, 141. In order to preclear its 2001 plan, Georgia filed suit in the District Court seeking a declaratory judgment that the plan does not violate § 5. To satisfy its burden of proving nonretrogression, Georgia submitted detailed evidence documenting, among other things, the total population, total black population, black voting age population, percentage of black registered voters, and the overall percentage of Democratic votes in each district; evidence about how each of these statistics compared to the benchmark districts; testimony from numerous participants in the plan's enactment that it was designed to increase black voting strength throughout the State as well as to help ensure a continued Democratic majority in the Senate; expert testimony that black and nonblack voters have equal chances of electing their preferred candidate when the black voting age population of a district is at 44.3%; and, in response to the United States' objections, more detailed statistical evidence with respect to three proposed Senate districts that the United States found objectionable-Districts 2, 12, and 26-and two districts challenged by the intervenors-Districts 15 and 22. The United States argued that the plan should not be precleared because the changes to the boundaries of Districts 2, 12, and 26 unlawfully reduced black voters' ability to elect candidates of their choice. The United States' evidence focused only on those three districts and was not designed to permit the court to assess the plan's overall impact. The intervenors, four African-Americans, argued that retrogression had occurred in Districts 15 and 22, and presented proposed alternative plans and an expert report critiquing the State's expert report. A three-judge District Court panel held that the plan violated § 5, and was therefore not entitled to preclearance.
1. The District Court did not err in allowing the private litigants to intervene. That court found that the intervenors' analysis of the plan identifies interests not adequately represented by the existing parties. Private parties may intervene in § 5 actions assuming they meet the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 24, NAACP v. New York, 413 U. S. 345, 365, and the District Court did not abuse its discretion in allowing intervention in this case, see id., at 367. Morris v. Gressette, 432 U. S. 491, 504-505, in which the Court held that the decision to object belongs only to the Attorney General, is distinguished because it concerned the administrative, not the judicial, preclearance