Georgia v. Ashcroft

PETITIONER: Georgia
RESPONDENT: John Ashcroft, Attorney General
LOCATION: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 02-182
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Federal district court

CITATION: 539 US 461 (2003)
ARGUED: Apr 29, 2003
DECIDED: Jun 26, 2003

ADVOCATES:
David F. Walbert - Argued the cause for the petitioner
E. Marshall Braden - Argued the cause for the private intervenors
Malcolm L. Stewart - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the federal respondent

Facts of the case

Following the 2000 Census, the Democratic-controlled Georgia legislature passed a redistricting plan that was backed by many black leaders because it would have spread black voters and influence across several districts rather than concentrating them in a select few. Georgia's Republican governor objected to the plan because he said it violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which discourages the dilution of minority voting strength. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected the legislature's plan.

Question

Did the redistricting plan violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by spreading minority voters across several districts rather than concentrating them in a few heavily minority ones?

Media for Georgia v. Ashcroft

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 29, 2003 in Georgia v. Ashcroft

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 26, 2003 in Georgia v. Ashcroft

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinions of the Court in two cases will be announced by Justice O’Connor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

The first is No. 02-182, Georgia versus Ashcroft, and the case comes to us from the District Court of the District of Colombia.

The issue is whether Georgia’s State Senate redistricting plan should have been precleared under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, whether a plan should be precleared depends on whether the change in voting law or practice would lead, as the statute says, would lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise.

The question then is whether Georgia’s State Senate redistricting plan is retrogressive as compared to its previous benchmark districting plan.

The parties conceived that the 1997 Georgia plan is the benchmark plan for this litigation, because it was in effect at the time of the more recent redistricting effort.

The 1997 Plan drew 56 senate districts, ten of them with a black voting age population of over 50%.

After the 2000 census, the Georgia General Assembly began the process of redistricting once again.

The goal of the General Assembly was to maintain the number of majority/minority districts and also increase the number of democratic seats in the State Senate.

The plan redistributed some of the black voters from districts with a heavy concentration of minorities and placed them in other districts to create more districts throughout the State with a sizable minority population.

The new plan drew 13 Senate districts with a majority black voting age population.

13 additional districts with a black voting age population of between 30 and 50% and four other districts with a black voting age population of between 25 and 30%.

Georgia filed suit as it was permitted to do in the District Court for the District of Columbia seeking a declaratory judgment that its plan was not retrogressive within the meaning of Section 5. The District Court refused preclearance because in three Senate districts of the new plan, a lesser opportunity existed for the black candidate of choice to win election under the new plan than under the benchmark plan.

We noted probable jurisdiction and we now vacate the judgment below.

Preliminarily, the District Court properly granted the motion to intervene filed by private parties.

Private parties may intervene in Section 5 actions assuming they need the requirements of federal rule of civil procedure 24.

On the merits, we reject Georgia’s argument that a plan should be precleared under Section 5 if the plan would satisfy Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, because Section 2 and Section 5 address different evils, and as in a previous case from this Court, we decline to equate a Section 2 vote dilution inquiry with the Section 5 retrogression standard.

Georgia also argues that even if compliance with Section 2 does not automatically result in preclearance for Section 5 purposes, its State Senate plan should be precleared because it does not lead to a retrogression in black voter’s effective exercise of the electoral franchise.

While we have never determined the meaning of the language effective exercise of the electoral franchise, this case requires us to do so in some detail.

First, we think the inquiry must encompass the entire statewide redistricting plan as a whole; second, any assessment of the retrogression of a minority groups effective exercise of the electoral franchise depends on an examination of all the relevant circumstances such as the ability of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice and the extent of the minority groups opportunity to participate in a political process.

With respect to the ability of minority voter’s ability to elect a candidate of choice, Section 5 gives the State some selectability to choose one theory of effective representation over another.

With respect to the minority groups’ opportunity to participate in a political process, the Court should examine among other things whether the new plan adds or subtracts districts where minority voters can play a substantial even if not decisive role in the electoral process, and whether the representatives elected for majority/minority districts supports the new districting plan.

We vacate the judgment below and remand the case for the District Court to determine whether Georgia has met its burden approved under the somewhat broader legal standard than District Court employed.

Justice Kennedy has filed a concurring opinion; Justice Thomas has filed a concurring opinion; Justice Souter has filed a dissenting opinion which is joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer.