DOCKET NO.: 95-1201
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
CITATION: 519 US 9 (1996)
ARGUED: Oct 08, 1996
DECIDED: Nov 06, 1996
Alan Jenkins – Department of Justice, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the appellants
Daniel G. Stone – Sacramento, California; argued the cause for the appellees
Joaquin G. Avila – Argued the cause for the appellants
Facts of the case
Because Monterey County, California is a jurisdiction covered by section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it must obtain federal preclearance of any voting practice different from its practices on November 1, 1968. Between 1972 and 1983, the County merged its nine separate and independent inferior court districts into a single, countywide municipal court served by judges whom County residents elected at large. In 1991, five Hispanic voters, who resided in the County, sued, alleging that the County had violated section 5 by failing to obtain federal preclearance of its judicial district consolidation ordinances. The County did not submit its ordinances after a three-judge District Court ruled against it. Rather, the County began to work with the voters to develop a new judicial election plan. Ultimately, the District Court ordered the County to conduct judicial elections under an at-large, countywide election plan.
May a district court issue an order that authorizes a county covered by section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to conduct judicial elections under an election plan that has not received federal approval pursuant to section 5?
Media for Lopez v. Monterey County
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – November 06, 1996 in Lopez v. Monterey County
William H. Rehnquist:
The opinion of the Court in No. 95-1201, Lopez against Monterey County will be announced by Justice O’Connor.
Sandra Day O’Connor:
This case comes to us on appeal from a three-judge District Court for the Northern District of California.
Monterey County, California is subject to the federal preclearance requirement set forth in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
As a jurisdiction covered by Section 5, the County may not enact or seek to administer any voting practice different from the practices in effect on November 1, 1968 without first obtaining approval of either the Attorney General of the United States or the District Court for the District of Columbia.
Between 1972 and 1983, Monterey County, in fact adopted a series of ordinances that merged nine separate judicial districts into a single countywide judicial district.
The County did not submit any of the consolidation ordinances for federal preclearance under Section 5.
The appellants in this case sued the County in the Federal District Court for the Northern District in 1991, alleging that the County had not obtained Section 5 preclearance for its judicial election scheme.
The three-judge District Court ordered the County to obtain federal preclearance of the challenged ordinances but the County did not submit the ordinances to the appropriate federal authorities.
Instead, the County began to work with the appellants to develop a new judicial election plan that they believe would be less retrogressive than the at large countywide election scheme.
The State of California intervened and opposed the party’s plans.
It claimed that they unnecessarily violated the California Constitution as well as certain California statutes.
In 1994, the three-judge District Court finally decided to adopt as an interim measure, one of the plans proposed by the County and the appellant even though the plan was inconsistent with state law.
In 1995, this Court issued its decision in Miller versus Johnson.
Shortly after that, the three-judge District Court here ruled that Miller casts substantial doubt on the constitutionality of its interim plan.
In 1995 then, it ordered the County to conduct judicial elections under an at large countywide election plan.
In essence, four years after filing the complaint, the District Court ordered the County to hold elections under the very same scheme that the appellant had originally challenged under Section 5 as unprecleared.
In an opinion filed today, we reverse.
The District Court’s order that the county conduct elections under the unprecleared judicial election plan conflicts with our decision in Clark versus Roemer.
It was an error for the District Court to order elections under the at large countywide election plan that had not been precleared by an appropriate federal authority.
Congress intended that only the Attorney General of the United States or the District Court for the District of Columbia has on the discriminatory effect or purpose of an election change.
This congressional choice in favor of specialized review limits the role of the three-judge Federal District Court, and the court may determine only whether Section 5 covers a contested voting change whether Section 5’s approval requirements were satisfied, and if the requirements were not satisfied, what temporary remedy, if any, is appropriate?
The goal of the three-judge District Court facing a Section 5 challenge must be to ensure that the covered jurisdiction submits its election change to appropriate federal authorities as expeditiously as possible.
A county has not discharged its obligation.
The requirements of federal scrutiny should besatisfied without further delay.
The judgment is reversed.
The case is remanded for further proceedings.
The decision is unanimous.