Lopez v. Monterey County

RESPONDENT: Monterey County
LOCATION: Alden's Workplace

DOCKET NO.: 97-1396
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)

CITATION: 525 US 266 (1999)
ARGUED: Nov 02, 1998
DECIDED: Jan 20, 1999

Daniel G. Stone - Argued the cause for the appellees
Joaquin G. Avila - Argued the cause for the appellants
Paul R. Q. Wolfson - on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the Appellants

Facts of the case

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires designated states and political subdivisions to obtain federal pre-clearance before giving effect to changes in their voting laws. Hispanic voters, residing in Monterey County, California, filed suit in federal court claiming the county had failed to obtain the required pre-clearance for a series of ordinances changing the method for electing county judges. A three-judge District Court ultimately dismissed the case because the section of the Voting Rights Act that requires pre-clearance did not cover California. Moreover, California had passed legislation requiring the voting changes forged by Monterey County.


Does the Voting Rights Act's pre-clearance requirement apply to states not explicitly covered by the Act?

Media for Lopez v. Monterey County

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 02, 1998 in Lopez v. Monterey County

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 97-1396, Vicky Lopez v. Monterey County.

Mr. Avila.

Joaquin G. Avila:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The question before you is whether a voting change is required to be precleared prior to its implementation within a section 5-covered jurisdiction.

Section 5, plain language, its purpose, administrative interpretation, and congressional ratification, answer that question in the affirmative.

The State of California's statutory construction argument would undermine the broad purpose of section 5 as articulated by this Court.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, but if it's a fair reading of the statute it has weight in its own right, doesn't it, even if it might be contrary to some earlier decisions of this Court.

Joaquin G. Avila:

Yes, it would.

If there's any ambiguity in the plain language of the statute then you would look at, not only at prior precedent, but also you would look at the structure, the overall structure of the act, that is, the interrelationship between sections 4 and 5, and also you would look at the Attorney General's longstanding interpretation of the act, and the legislative history, which confirms Congress' awareness and ratification of that interpretation.

And when you look at the focus of section 5, it is on the covered jurisdiction and whether its voting practices have changed, irrespective of the source of the voting change, but the State's construction would immunize a covered voting change so long as a State enacted a superseding statute, even if that statute was never subjected to preclearance.

This construction would create what has been described as a loophole the size of a mountain.

Two examples of such loopholes are:


Counties could evade section 5 review by securing courtesy legislation at the State level.


Section 5 review of redistricting plans would be circumvented.

On the other hand, a harmonious interpretation of the statute is achieved by construing section 5 consistently with section 4.

Antonin Scalia:

Well, the courtesy legislation point, I mean, I guess you have to acknowledge that a covered county can do some nasty things which it hasn't tried to do before by getting the State to acknowledge State-wide legislation.


Joaquin G. Avila:

That's correct.

The problem, however, is that the State's argument, if adopted by this Court, would result in major loopholes in the section 5 preclearance provision and, in this particular instance, it would immunize the county's voting changes from section 5 review.

Antonin Scalia:

If you appeal the plain language, what do you do when the State adopts a general provision of legislation?

Does each county within the State that happens to be covered have to clear that piece of legislation?

My understanding is that it's simply the State that preclears it and when that happens the county's okay.

Joaquin G. Avila:

If... the focus is on the voting changes that occur within the covered jurisdiction.

If the State enacts a statute that affects voting changes within our covered jurisdiction, either the State or the county can submit either the... the legislation for section 5 preclearance.

David H. Souter:

Why wouldn't--

--But if you're appealing to the plain language, does the plain language suggest that either the State or the county can do it?

Joaquin G. Avila:

The plain language of section 5 would suggest that either a covered State or a political subdivision, but, however, the responsibility, the primary responsibility would be on Monterey County to make sure that it submits any voting change, irrespective of its source, when it effectuates a voting change in that covered county.

David H. Souter:

I'm not sure I understand you.