Supreme Court decides voting rights case
- On January 24, 2000, the Supreme Court agreed with CIR that the Department of Justice may not deny pre-clearance to local redistricting plans that maintain minority voting strength, even if they do not maximize such voting strength according to a hypothetical ideal.
- This case is considered significant because it tests a controversial legal theory used by the U.S. Justice Department to force local officials to adopt redistricting plans that hypothetically maximize minority voting strength. The NAACP and the Justice Department argued in this case that even though Bossier Parish’s redistricting plan preserved minority voting strength, merely preserving minority voting strength constituted racial discrimination and provided a legal basis for refusing to pre-clear the plan.
- Bossier Parish is a rural district in northern Louisiana with a black voting age population of about 18%. As a southern jurisdiction, it must obtain pre-clearance under Section Five of the Voting Rights Act from the U.S. Department of Justice before implementing any redistricting plan. At issue in this case is the legal standard that governs the pre-clearance decision.
- The Bossier Parish School Board was required to redraw its voting districts after the 1990 census. The Board adopted the districting plan then in use by the Police Jury, which is the governing body of Bossier Parish. The Police Jury plan had been pre-cleared by the Justice Department, and the School Board reasonably assumed that if it adopted the same plan, it would receive prompt pre-clearance as well. In addition, the Police Jury plan had been supported by the one black member of the Police Jury when it had been adopted, kept intact every black population concentration, and complied with state law and traditional districting principles, such as compactness and maintaining the integrity of municipal, district, and precinct boundaries.
- In operation, the Police Jury plan has resulted in the election of three black members to the School Board from majority-white districts. This amounts to 25% black representation on the Board, slightly in excess of the black percentage of the population of Bossier Parish.
- At the time the School Board was considering whether to adopt the Police Jury Plan, the local chapter of the NAACP presented an alternative plan which would have created two black-majority voting districts. The failure of the School Board to adopt the NAACP alternative plan formed the basis of the Justice Department’s contention that the School Board acted in a discriminatory manner.
- The School Board argues that it could not have adopted the NAACP alternative because it would have violated state election law. Louisiana law requires that school board election districts contain “whole precincts established by the parish governing authority.” That is, under Louisiana law, the School Board was forced to work with the existing precincts used by the Policy Jury.
- The NAACP plan required splitting 46 of the existing Police Jury voting precincts 65 times (some of the precincts suffering more than a single split). The NAACP acknowledged this state law prohibition, but argued that the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution required the School Board to ignore state law.
- Despite have pre-cleared the identical Police Jury plan, the Justice Department denied pre-clearance of the School Board Plan.
- Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 governs pre-clearance. It requires a jurisdiction to prove that a proposed redistricting plan “does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of” retrogressing minority voting strength. The Justice Department has taken the position that retrogression must be measured by a hypothetical plan designed to maximize minority voting strength. Bossier Parish took the position that “retrogression” must be measured by the minority voting strength under the existing plan.
- In the first Supreme Court Decision (Bossier I) the Court held that Section 5 only requires a jurisdiction adopt a plan which does not have the “effect” of retrogressing minority voting strength as measured by the existing plan, not an ideal or hypothetical plan. Thus, a plan cannot be denied pre-clearance just because it does not maximize minority voting strength.
- However, the Court also held that evidence about a jurisdiction’s decision not to maximize minority voting strength might be relevant to assess whether it had an intention to adopt a plan to retrogress minority voting strength (even if the plan did not actually retrogress such voting strength). The Court remanded the case to the District Court to examine whether the circumstances surrounding the School Board’s failure to adopt the NAACP plan constituted evidence that it at least intended to retrogress minority voting strength.
- The Court also left open the question of whether evidence of some non retrogressive, but nevertheless discriminatory, “purpose” might also be grounds for denial of pre-clearance under Section 5.
- On remand, the District Court held that the decision not to adopt the NAACP plan did not constitute evidence of a retrogressive intent because there were legitimate reasons to have adopted the Police Jury Plan. In addition the District Court held that there was no evidence in the record about the existence of a non-retrogressive but nonetheless discriminatory purpose and therefore declined to address the question the Supreme Court left open about the relevance of such evidence under Section 5.