BEER V. UNITED STATES, 425 U. S. 130 (1976)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Beer v. United States, 425 U.S. 130 (1976)

Beer v. United States

No. 73-1869

Argued March 26, 1975

Reargued November 12, 1975

Decided March 30, 1976

425 U.S. 130


The 1954 New Orleans City Charter provides for a seven-member city council, with one member being elected from each of five councilmanic districts, and two being elected by the voters of the city at large. In 1961 the council, as it was required to do after each decennial census, redistricted the city based on the 1960 census so that, in one councilmanic district, Negroes constituted a majority of the population, but only about half of the registered voters, and, in the other four districts, white voters outnumbered Negroes. No Negro was elected to the council from 1960 to 1970. After the 1970 census, the council devised a reapportionment plan, under which there would be Negro population majorities in two councilmanic districts and a Negro voter majority in one. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits a State or political subdivision subject to § 4 of the Act (as New Orleans is) from enforcing a proposed change in voting procedures unless it has obtained a declaratory judgment from the District Court of the District of Columbia that such change "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" or has submitted the change to the Attorney General and he has not objected to it. After the proposed plan had been objected to by the Attorney General, New Orleans sought a declaratory judgment in the District Court. That court refused to allow the plan to go into effect, holding that it would have the effect of abridging Negro voting rights, and that, moreover, the plan's failure to alter the city charter provision for two at-large seats in itself had such effect.


1. Since § 5's language clearly provides that it applies only to proposed changes in voting procedures, and since the at-large seats existed without change since 1954, those seats were not subject to review under § 5. The District Court consequently erred in holding that the plan could be rejected under § 5 solely because it did not eliminate the two at-large seats. Pp. 425 U. S. 138-139.

2. A legislative reapportionment that enhances the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the

Page 425 U. S. 131

electoral franchise cannot violate § 5 unless the new apportionment itself so discriminates racially as to violate the Constitution. Applying this standard here, where, in contrast to the 1961 apportionment under which none of the five councilmanic districts had a clear Negro voting majority and no Negro had been elected to the council, Negroes under the plan in question will constitute a population majority in two of the five districts and a clear voting majority in one, it is predictable that, by bloc voting, one and perhaps two Negroes will be elected to the council. The District Court therefore erred in concluding that the plan would have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color within the meaning of § 5. Pp. 425 U. S. 139-142.

374 F.Supp. 363, vacated and remanded.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 425 U. S. 143. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 425 U. S. 145. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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