Law School Case Brief
City of Rome v. United States - 446 U.S. 156, 100 S. Ct. 1548 (1980)
Principles of federalism that might otherwise be an obstacle to congressional authority are necessarily overridden by the power to enforce the Civil War amendments by appropriate legislation. Those amendments were specifically designed as an expansion of federal power and an intrusion on state sovereignty. Applying this principle, Congress had the authority to regulate state and local voting through the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C.S. § 1973 et seq.
In 1966, appellant city of Rome, Ga., made certain changes in its electoral system, including provisions for majority rather than plurality vote for each of the nine members of the City Commission; for three numbered posts within each of the three (reduced from nine) wards; and for staggered terms for the commissioners and for members of the Board of Education from each ward; and a requirement that members of the Board reside in the wards from which they were elected. In addition, the city made 60 annexations between November 1, 1964, and February 10, 1975. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Act) requires preclearance by the Attorney General of the United States or the United States District Court for the District of Columbia of any change in a "standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting" made after November 1, 1964, by jurisdictions that fall within the coverage formula set forth in § 4 (b) of the Act. Section 5 further provides that the Attorney General may clear a voting practice only if it "does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color." Georgia was designated a covered jurisdiction in 1965, and the municipalities of that State accordingly must comply with the preclearance procedure. Eventually, after at first having failed to do so, Rome submitted the annexations and the 1966 electoral changes for preclearance, but the Attorney General declined to preclear the above-enumerated electoral changes, concluding that in a city such as Rome, in which the population is predominately white and racial bloc voting has been common, such electoral changes would deprive Negro voters of the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice. The Attorney General also refused to preclear 13 of the 60 annexations, finding that the city had not carried its burden of proving that the disapproved annexations would not dilute the Negro vote. Subsequently, however, in response to the city's motion for reconsideration, the Attorney General agreed to preclear the 13 annexations for Board of Education elections but still refused to preclear them for City Commission elections. The city and two of its officials then filed a declaratory judgment action in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking relief from the Act based on a variety of claims. A three-judge court rejected the city's arguments and granted summary judgment for the defendants, finding that the disapproved electoral changes and annexations, while not made for any discriminatory purpose, did have a discriminatory effect. The court refused to allow the city to "bail out" of the Act's coverage pursuant to § 4 (a), which allows a covered jurisdiction to escape § 5's preclearance requirement by bringing a declaratory judgment action and proving that no "test or device" has been used in the jurisdiction during the 17 years preceding the filing of the action "for the purpose or with the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color."
Did the district court err in holding that the Voting Rights Act was constitutional and that it applied to the changes made by the city?
The United States Supreme Court upheld the decision of the district court. The exemption provided for in 42 U.S.C.S. § 1973b(a) for jurisdictions that could prove that no racial test had been used during the preceding 17 years did not apply to individual municipalities when the entire state was covered under the Voting Rights Act. The city argued that § 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited only purposeful racial discrimination. The court held that the authority granted by § 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment, which provided for congressional enforcement, was as broad as that granted under the Necessary and Proper Clause. Under that authority, whatever legislation was appropriate to carry out the objects of the Civil War amendments was within the power of Congress.
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