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.
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 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.
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.
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 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