Presley v. Etowah County Commission

PETITIONER:Lawrence C. Presley et al.
RESPONDENT:Etowah County Commission et al.
LOCATION:Etowah County Commission

DOCKET NO.: 90-711
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)

CITATION: 502 US 491 (1992)
ARGUED: Nov 12, 1991
DECIDED: Jan 27, 1992

Edward Still – on behalf of the Appellants
Paul M. Smith – on behalf of the Appellees
Robert A. Long, Jr. – on behalf of the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal

Facts of the case

The principal focus of Alabama County Commission members is the construction and maintenance of roads. In 1987, Etowah County Commission passed the “Common Fund Resolution”, combining all of the commission’s funds into one county-wide budget and eliminating each commissioner’s power over the distribution of funds allocated for his or her own road district. Newly elected black member, Commissioner Lawrence C. Presley, claimed that the changes in the distribution of authority were a form of racial discrimination and a violation of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which permits a state government to alter practices related to voting only after receiving judicial preclearance. The Etowah County Commission had not received this preclearance, and neither had the Russell County Commission when, in 1979, its members instituted the “Unit System.” This system transferred full authority over Russell County roads, highways, bridges, and ferries from the commissioners to the appointed county engineer. When the first 2 black commissioners were elected in Russell County, they joined Presley in filing a suit against Etowah and Russell Counties in the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. The District Court determined that preclearance was unnecessary in both 2 instances, but Presley appealed.


Did the alterations imposed by the Etowah County Commission and the Russell County Commission regarding the scope of commissioner authority constitute changes “with respect to voting” according to section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965?

Media for Presley v. Etowah County Commission

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 12, 1991 in Presley v. Etowah County Commission

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 27, 1992 in Presley v. Etowah County Commission

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 90-711, Presley versus Etowah County Commission and a companion case will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

These two suits under Section 5 of the Voting Ranks Act were commenced in a three-judge District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, and the consolidated cases are now here on appeal.

Each suit concerns a county road commission in rural Alabama, one in Etowah County and the other in Russell County.

The Commission members are elected.

In each of these counties, there was litigation to change the electoral process.

And as a result, the first black members in modern times were elected to the road commissions in 1986.

Those electoral changes are not at issue here.

Instead, the suits challenge changes in the decision making authority and the decision structure of the commissions.

The black commission members who brought these suits claim that these changes had the effect of diminishing the rule and the real power of the elected members.

In Etowah County, the Commission altered its prior practice of delegating to each member of the Commission the authority to determine how funds allocated to his particular road district should be spent.

And under the new system, decisions of this sort are made by the Commission as a whole.

In Russell County, the Commission altered its earlier practice of granting the Commissioner’s individual authority for road and bridge repair and construction within their separate residency districts.

Under the new system in Russell County, these responsibilities were transferred to the County Engineer.

He was an official appointed by the Commission and responsible to it, but he made all of the routine decisions respecting construction and road repair countywide.

The plaintiffs sued the County Commissions to enjoin these changes on the basis that they were covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Act provides, in covered jurisdictions, that any change with respect to voting must be submitted to the United States Attorney General for approval before it may be implemented.

These changes had not been submitted to the Attorney General and the District Court held that the County Commissions could implement the changes because they were not covered by the Act.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we now affirm the judgment of the District Court though we adapt a different rationale to determine the question, what constitutes a change with respect to voting as that term is used in the Act?

The commissioners who sue argue that these changes in decision making structure reduced their net authority.

It follows, they contend, that a vote cast for individual commissioners was made less valuable and so there was a change with respect to voting.

The United States as amicus curiae agrees.

It asks us to adapt a rule embracing the routine actions of state and local governments at all levels so that this case has significance well beyond these two County Commissions.

We reject the position of the appellants and of the United States because it has no basis in the statute and provides no workable standard.

Were we to accept the appellant’s reading of Section 5, we would work an unconstrained expansion of the statutory coverage.

Innumerable state and local enactments having nothing to do with voting, affects the power of elected officials.

The appellants and the United States failed to provide a workable distinction between changes in rules governing voting and changes in the routine organization and functioning of government.

Some standard is necessary for in a real sense, every decision taken by a democratic government implicates voting.

Yet, no one would contend that when Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act it meant to subject all or even most decisions of government in covered jurisdictions to federal supervision.

Rather, the Act by its terms covers any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard practice or procedure with respect to voting.

The changes now at issue are not covered by this language.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

And on this rationale, we affirm the judgment of the District Court.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices White and Blackmun join.