446 U.S. 156 (1980)

Decided April 22, 1980.

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

At issue in this case is the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its applicability to electoral changes and annexations made by the city of Rome, Ga.


This is a declaratory judgment action brought by appellant city of Rome, a municipality in northwestern Georgia, under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1970 the city had a population of 30,759, the racial composition of which was 76.6% white and 23.4% Negro. The voting-age population in 1970 was 79.4% white and 20.6% Negro.

The governmental structure of the city is established by a charter enacted in 1918 by the General Assembly of Georgia. Before the amendments at issue in this case, Rome's city charter provided for a nine-member City Commission and a five-member Board of Education to be elected concurrently on an at-large basis by a plurality of the vote. The city was divided into nine wards, with one city commissioner from each ward to be chosen in the citywide election. There was no residency requirement for Board of Education candidates.

In 1966, the General Assembly of Georgia passed several laws of local application that extensively amended the electoral provisions of the city's charter. These enactments altered the Rome electoral scheme in the following ways:

(1) the number of wards was reduced from nine to three;

(2) each of the nine commissioners would henceforth be elected at-large to one of three numbered posts established within each ward;

(3) each commissioner would be elected by majority rather than plurality vote, and if no candidate for a particular position received a majority, a runoff election would be held between the two candidates who had received the largest number of votes;

(4) the terms of the three commissioners from each ward would be staggered;

(5) the Board of Education was expanded from five to six members;

(6) each Board member would be elected at large, by majority vote, for one of two numbered posts created in each of the three wards, with runoff procedures identical to those applicable to City Commission elections;

(7) Board members would be required to reside in the wards from which they were elected;

(8) the terms of the two members from each ward would be staggered.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires preclearance by the Attorney General or the United States District Court for the District of Columbia of any change in a "standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting," made after November 1, 1964, by jurisdictions that fall within the coverage formula set forth in 4 (b) of the Act. In 1965, the Attorney General designated Georgia a covered jurisdiction under the Act, and the municipalities of that State must therefore comply with the preclearance procedure.

It is not disputed that the 1966 changes in Rome's electoral system were within the purview of the Act....

In June 1974, the city did submit one annexation to the Attorney General for preclearance. The Attorney General discovered that other annexations had occurred, and, in response to his inquiries, the city submitted all the annexations and the 1966 electoral changes for preclearance. The Attorney General declined to preclear the provisions for majority vote, numbered posts, and staggered terms for City Commission and Board of Education elections, as well as the residency requirement for Board elections. He concluded that in a city such as Rome, in which the population is predominately white and racial bloc voting has been common, these electoral changes would deprive Negro voters of the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice....

The city and two of its officials then filed this action, seeking relief from the Act based on a variety of claims....


The appellants raise five issues of law in support of their contention that the Act may not properly be applied to the electoral changes and annexations disapproved by the Attorney General.


The District Court found that the disapproved electoral changes and annexations had not been made for any discriminatory purpose, but did have a discriminatory effect. The appellants argue that 5 of the Act may not be read as prohibiting voting practices that have only a discriminatory effect. The appellants do not dispute that the plain language of 5 commands that the Attorney General may clear a practice only if it "does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color."  By describing the elements of discriminatory purpose and effect in the conjunctive, Congress plainly intended that a voting practice not be precleared unless both discriminatory purpose and effect are absent. Our decisions have consistently interpreted 5 in this fashion.

The appellants urge that we abandon this settled interpretation because in their view 5, to the extent that it prohibits voting changes that have only a discriminatory effect, is unconstitutional. Because the statutory meaning and congressional intent are plain, however, we are required to reject the appellants' suggestion that we engage in a saving construction and avoid the constitutional issues they raise. Instead, we now turn to their constitutional contentions.


Congress passed the Act under the authority accorded it by the Fifteenth Amendment. The appellants contend that the Act is unconstitutional because it exceeds Congress' power to enforce that Amendment. They claim that 1 of the Amendment prohibits only purposeful racial discrimination in voting, and that in enforcing that provision pursuant to 2, Congress may not prohibit voting practices lacking discriminatory intent even if they are discriminatory in effect. We hold that, even if 1 of the Amendment prohibits only purposeful discrimination, the prior decisions of this Court foreclose any argument that Congress may not, pursuant to 2, outlaw voting practices that are discriminatory in effect.

The appellants are asking us to do nothing less than overrule our decision in South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966), in which we upheld the constitutionality of the Act... The Court's treatment in South Carolina v. Katzenbach of the Act's ban on literacy tests demonstrates that, under the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress may prohibit voting practices that have only a discriminatory effect....

It is clear, then, that under 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment Congress may prohibit practices that in and of themselves do not violate 1 of the Amendment, so long as the prohibitions attacking racial discrimination in voting are "appropriate," as that term is defined in McCulloch v. Maryland. In the present case, we hold that the Act's ban on electoral changes that are discriminatory in effect is an appropriate method of promoting the purposes of the Fifteenth Amendment, even if it is assumed that 1 of the Amendment prohibits only intentional discrimination in voting. Congress could rationally have concluded that, because electoral changes by jurisdictions with a demonstrable history of intentional racial discrimination in voting create the risk of purposeful discrimination, it was proper to prohibit changes that have a discriminatory impact. We find no reason, then, to disturb Congress' considered judgment that banning electoral changes that have a discriminatory impact is an effective method of preventing States from "`undo[ing] or defeat[ing] the rights recently won' by Negroes...."

MR. JUSTICE POWELL, dissenting....

MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST, with whom MR. JUSTICE STEWART joins, dissenting.

We have only today held that the city of Mobile does not violate the Constitution by maintaining an at-large system of electing city officials unless voters can prove that system is a product of purposeful discrimination. This result is reached even though the black residents of Mobile have demonstrated that racial "bloc" voting has prevented them from electing a black representative to the city government. The Court correctly concluded that a city has no obligation under the Constitution to structure its representative system in a manner that maximizes the black community's ability to elect a black representative. Yet in the instant case, the city of Rome is prevented from instituting precisely the type of structural changes which the Court says Mobile may maintain consistently with the Civil War Amendments, so long as their purpose be legitimate, because Congress has prohibited these changes under the Voting Rights Act as an exercise of its "enforcement" power conferred by those Amendments.

It is not necessary to hold that Congress is limited to merely providing a forum in which aggrieved plaintiffs may assert rights under the Civil War Amendments in order to disagree with the Court's decision permitting Congress to straitjacket the city of Rome in this manner. Under 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment and 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress is granted only the power to "enforce" by "appropriate" legislation the limitations on state action embodied in those Amendments.... Today's decision is nothing less than a total abdication of that authority, rather than an exercise of the deference due to a coordinate branch of the government.


The facts of this case readily demonstrate the fallacy underlying the Court's determination that congressional prohibition of Rome's conduct can be characterized as enforcement of the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendment.  The lower court found that Rome has not employed any discriminatory barriers to black voter registration in the past 17 years. Nor has the city employed any other barriers to black voting or black candidacy. Indeed, the court found that white elected officials have encouraged blacks to run for elective posts in Rome, and are "responsive to the needs and interests of the black community." The city has not discriminated against blacks in the provision of services and has made efforts to upgrade black neighborhoods.

It was also established that although a black has never been elected to political office in Rome, a black was appointed to fill a vacancy in an elective post. White candidates vigorously pursue the support of black voters. Several commissioners testified that they spent proportionately more time campaigning in the black community because they "needed that vote to win." The court concluded that "blacks often hold the balance of power in Rome elections."


The Court holds today that the city of Rome can constitutionally be compelled to seek congressional approval for most of its governmental changes even though it has not engaged in any discrimination against blacks for at least 17 years. Moreover, the Court also holds that federal approval can be constitutionally denied even after the city has proved that the changes are not purposefully discriminatory.

The facts of this case signal the necessity for this Court to carefully scrutinize the alleged source of congressional power to intrude so deeply in the governmental structure of the municipal corporations created by some of the 50 States. Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment and 5 of the Fourteenth provide that Congress shall have the power to "enforce" 1 "by appropriate legislation." Congressional power to prohibit the electoral changes proposed by Rome is dependent upon the scope and nature of that power. There are three theories of congressional enforcement power relevant to this case. First, it is clear that if the proposed changes would violate the Constitution, Congress could certainly prohibit their implementation. It has never been seriously maintained, however, that Congress can do no more than the judiciary to enforce the Amendments' commands. Thus, if the electoral changes in issue do not violate the Constitution, as judicially interpreted, it must be determined whether Congress could nevertheless appropriately prohibit these changes under the other two theories of congressional power. Under the second theory, Congress can act remedially to enforce the judicially established substantive prohibitions of the Amendments. If not properly remedial, the exercise of this power could be sustained only if this Court accepts the premise of the third theory that Congress has the authority under its enforcement powers to determine, without more, that electoral changes with a disparate impact on race violate the Constitution, in which case Congress by a legislative Act could effectively amend the Constitution.

I think it is apparent that neither of the first two theories for sustaining the exercise of congressional power supports this application of the Voting Rights Act. After our decision in City of Mobile there is little doubt that Rome has not engaged in constitutionally prohibited conduct. I also do not believe that prohibition of these changes can genuinely be characterized as a remedial exercise of congressional enforcement powers. Thus, the result of the Court's holding is that Congress effectively has the power to determine for itself that this conduct violates the Constitution. This result violates previously well-established distinctions between the Judicial Branch and the Legislative or Executive Branches of the Federal Government....

Exploring Constitutional Conflicts