Riley v. Kennedy

PETITIONER:Bob Riley, Governor of Alabama
RESPONDENT:Yvonne Kennedy et al.
LOCATION:U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay

DOCKET NO.: 07-77
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: Federal district court

CITATION: 553 US 406 (2008)
ARGUED: Mar 24, 2008
DECIDED: May 27, 2008

Kevin C. Newsom – on behalf of the Appellant
Kannon K. Shanmugam – on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the Appellees
Pamela S. Karlan – on behalf of the Appellees

Facts of the case

In 1987, the United States Attorney General precleared a local Alabama law providing for a special election to fill vacancies on the Mobile County Commission, an exception to the usual procedure of gubernatorial appointment. The Alabama Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the election violated the Alabama Constitution, so in response the Alabama Legislature passed an act explicitly allowing local laws to establish such an election. The Alabama Supreme Court rejected this contention and held that the new state law failed to revive the local law. The plaintiffs, a group of Alabama residents, brought this suit in federal court alleging that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required the State of Alabama to preclear the two decisions of the Supreme Court in an action against the Governor of Alabama.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama found for the plaintiffs, stating that because the local law was the most recent precleared practice put into effect with the 1987 special election, it was the baseline from which to determine if there was a change. Because the Alabama Supreme Court had rendered the local law invalid and the state law unenforceable, the two decisions represented changes that should have been precleared before being implemented.


Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was the State of Alabama required to preclear two Alabama Supreme Court decisions invalidating state and local laws creating a special election for local officials in an action against the Governor of Alabama challenging the legality of those elections?

Media for Riley v. Kennedy

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 24, 2008 in Riley v. Kennedy

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 27, 2008 in Riley v. Kennedy

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

The section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires covered States to obtain federal preclearance before making any change in their voting practices.

This case presents a novel question concerning the meaning of the word “change” in the context of Section 5.

The voting practice at issue is the method used to film midterm vacancies on the commission governing Mobile, Alabama.

In 1985, Alabama passed and obtained preclearance of an act substituting special elections for the earlier installed practice of gubernatorial appointment.

When the next midterm vacancy occurred in 1987, the governor, in keeping with the 1985 Act pulled a special election.

But before the election took place, a voter challenged the 1985 Act in state court.

The challenger urged that the Act did not comply with the requirements set out in Alabama’s constitution for enacting laws, not of statewide governments but applicable to one county only.

The trial court rejected the challenge and allowed the election to go forward.

The year after the winner took office, however, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision.

The State Supreme Court held that the 1985 law authorizing special elections indeed did violate the State Constitutions’ instruction on the passage of local laws.

Accordingly, when the next midterm vacancy occurred in 2005, Governor Bob Riley in line with the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision, sought to fill the opening by appointment.

A group of plaintiffs led by appellee, Yvonne Kennedy, then filed this suit in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama.

The practice of gubernatorial appointment to Kennedy led plaintiffs maintained, was a change from the special election held under the 1985 law.

Therefore, they argued Section 5 barring Alabama from filling the vacancy by appointment rather than election unless the State first obtained preclearance.

Adopting the view advanced by the plaintiffs, a three-judge panel of the District Court granted them declaratory and injunctive relief.

Governor Riley appealed that decision to this Court.

We first project the Kennedy’s plaintiffs now appellee’s contention that the governor’s appeal was untimely.

On the merits, we reversed the District Court and hold that for Section 5 purposes, the invalidated 1985 law never gained force or effect.

Therefore, the States reversing to its prior practice in accord with the decision of the Alabama Supreme Court did not rank as a change requiring preclearance.

Our decision today rests on an extraordinary circumstance, not present in any past case interpreting the Section 5 term in force or effect.

The 1985 law was challenged at earliest opportunity, the lone election was held in the shadow of that legal challenge and the law was ultimately invalidated by the Alabama Supreme Court.

That Court’s prerogative to say what Alabama law is, merits respect in federal forms, much as this Court’s decisions on question to federal law command respect in state forums.

A state law invalidated by a State Supreme Court under the circumstances presented here is properly regarded as void from the start and therefore incapable of establishing a voting practice for Section 5 purposes.

A contrary holding in this case, we note, would have the anomalous effect of binding the state to a practice improperly enacted under the State’s Constitution, and we do so simply because the state trial court misread Alabama law and therefore, erroneously allowed the 1987’s special election to proceed.

For these reasons and others detailed in our opinion, we conclude that Section 5 did not require Alabama to obtain preclearance before reinstating the practice of gubernatorial appointment.

Accordingly, we reverse the District Court’s judgment.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Souter joins.