Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. One v. Holder

PETITIONER: Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One
RESPONDENT: Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General, et al.
LOCATION: Northwest Austin Municipality Utility District 1

DOCKET NO.: 08-322
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)

CITATION: 557 US (2009)
GRANTED: Jan 09, 2009
ARGUED: Apr 29, 2009
DECIDED: Jun 22, 2009

Debo P. Adegbile - argued the cause for the intervenor-appellee
Gregory S. Coleman - argued the cause for the appellant
Neal Kumar Katyal - Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, argued the cause for the appellee Holder

Facts of the case

Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One ("Northwest") sought a declaratory judgment exempting it from Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and alternatively argued that Section 5 was unconstitutional. Section 5 prohibits "covered jurisdictions" – states and political subdivisions with histories of racial discrimination in voting – from changing their voting procedures without permission from either the Attorney General or a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The district court held that Northwest was not eligible for exemption from Section 5 reasoning that it did not qualify as a "political subdivision" as defined in the Voting Rights Act. Moreover, the court rejected Northwest's argument that Congress' 2006 extension of Section 5 for another 25 years made the provision unconstitutional. Rather, the court held that given the documentation of contemporary racial discrimination in "covered jurisdictions", Congress acted rationally in extending the provision, rendering Section 5 constitutional.


1) Does Section 4(a) of the Voting Rights Act ("VRA") permit any "political subunit" of a "covered state" from seeking exemption from Section 5 of the VRA when it permits "political subdivisions" within "covered states" from seeking such exemptions?

2) Was the 2006 extension of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act a valid exercise of congressional power when the Congressional Record indicated no persistent patter of "covered states" attempting to evade the enforcement of the VRA?

Media for Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. One v. Holder

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 29, 2009 in Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. One v. Holder

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 22, 2009 in Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. One v. Holder

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

I have our opinion this morning in case 08-322, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District versus Holder.

This is a case about the obligations imposed by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

That statute requires all covered jurisdictions to seek preclearance from federal authorities in Washington, D.C. before they can change anything about the way they hold elections.

That requirement applies only to certain covered jurisdictions selected by a formula Congress created 35 years ago.

When the Act was passed in 1965, the preclearance requirement was intended to last for five years.

Congress has repeatedly extended it.

Most recently in 2006, Congress extended it for 25 years.

The appellant is a small utility district with an elected board.

There is no evidence that it is ever discriminated on the basis of race in those elections, but it is located in the covered State of Texas and therefore is required to seek preclearance before it change anything about its elections.

Another part of the Voting Rights Act called the bailout provision cover -- allows the covered political subdivision to file a lawsuit in Federal District Court and to be released from the preclearance requirements if certain conditions are met.

The district filed such a bailout suit.

The district also argued in the alternative that if the Act does not permit it to bail out, the preclearance requirement of Section 5 is unconstitutional.

The Federal District Court rejected both claims.

It concluded that bailout is available only to a narrow class of political subdivisions defined in the Act not to an entity like the district.

It also concluded that Section 5 was constitutional.

The utility district appealed and we are therefore required to review the District Court judgment.

Unlike the situation with most of the cases that come before us, we do not have discretion to decline review of cases arising under these provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

The historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are undeniable.

When the Act was first passed, unconstitutional discrimination was rampant and the racial gap in voter registration and turnout.

That is the gap between white registration and turnout compared to minority registration and turnout was great.

Today that gap has been dramatically diminished and most of the barriers to equal voting rights have long been abolished.

At the same time, Section 5 intrudes on the covered jurisdictions in a way otherwise unfamiliar to our federal system.

That aspect of the Act has, over the past 40 years, caused various members of the Court to express misgivings about the constitutionality of Section 5.

Section 5 goes beyond what is prohibited by the Fifteenth Amendment.

It sweeps broadly to suspend all voting changes however innocuous until they are precleared by federal authorities.

And some of the circumstances that we have relied on in upholding Section 5 in the past have unquestionably changed.

Voter turnout and registration now approach parity.

In the forms of blatant discrimination that were common place when the Act was passed are now rare.

Things have changed in the South.

Those improvements are no doubt doing part to the Voting Rights Act and they stand as a monument to its success.