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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Board of Comm'rs of Sheffield, 435 U.S. 110 (1978)

United States v. Board of Commissioners of Sheffield, Alabama

No. 76-1662

Argued October 11, 1977

Decided March 6, 1978

435 U.S. 110


Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provides that, whenever "a State or political subdivision with respect to which" § 4 of the Act is in effect shall enact any voting qualification or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting different from that in force on November 1, 1964, the change has no effect as law unless such State or subdivision obtains, as specified in the statute, a declaratory judgment that the change does not have a racially discriminatory purpose or effect. Alternatively, the change may be enforced if it is submitted to the Attorney General and he has interposed no objection to it within 60 days after the submission, or has advised that objection will not be made. The city of Sheffield, Ala., on November 1, 1964, had a commission form of government. Some months later, it sought to put to a referendum the question whether the city should adopt a mayor-council form of government, and respondent Board of Commissioners for the city gave the Attorney General written notice of the referendum proposal, Alabama being a State covered under § 4 of the Act. The referendum was held and the voters approved the change. Thereafter, the Attorney General replied that he did not object to the holding of the referendum, but that, since the voters had elected to adopt the mayor-council form of government, "the change is also subject to the preclearance requirement of Section 5," and that detailed information should be submitted if preclearance was sought through the Attorney General. Following his receipt of such information, the Attorney General made objection to a phase of the change that involved the at-large election of city councilmen. After the city nevertheless scheduled an at-large council election, the United States brought this suit to enforce the § 5 objection. The District Court denied relief, holding that Sheffield was not covered by § 5 because it was not a "political subdivision" as that term is defined in § 14(c)(2) of the Act, which provides that

"'political subdivision' shall mean any county or parish, except that where registration for voting is not conducted under the supervision of a county or parish, the term shall include any other subdivision of a State which conducts registration for voting,"

and that therefore Sheffield was not a

Page 435 U. S. 111

political subdivision because, in Alabama, registration is conducted by the counties. The court also held that, by approving the referendum, the Attorney General had approved the mayor-council form of government in which councilmen were elected at large, notwithstanding his statement regarding preclearance.


1. Section 5 of the Act applies to all entities having power over any aspect of the electoral process within designated jurisdictions, not only to counties or other units of state government that perform the function of registering voters, and the District Court therefore erred in holding that Sheffield is not subject to § 5. Pp. 435 U. S. 117-135.

(a) The District Court's interpretation of the Act does not comport with the Act's structure, makes § 5 coverage depend upon a factor completely irrelevant to the Act's purposes, and thereby permits precisely the kind of circumvention of congressional policy that § 5 was designed to prevent. Section 5 "was structured to assure the effectiveness of the dramatic step Congress [took] in § 4," and "is clearly designed to march in lock-step with § 4." Allen v. State Board of Elections, 393 U. S. 544, 393 U. S. 54 (Harlan, J., concurring and dissenting). Since jurisdictions may be designated under § 4(b) by reason of the actions of election officials who do not register voters, and since § 4(a) imposes duties on all election officials, whether or not they are involved in voter registration, it follows from the very structure of the Act that § 5 must apply to all entities exercising control over the electoral process within the covered States or subdivisions. The Act's terms and decisions of this Court clearly indicate that § 5 was not intended to apply only to voting changes occurring within the registration process or only to the changes of specific entities. Pp. 435 U. S. 118-125.

(b) The Act's language does not require such a crippling construction as that given by the District Court. In view of the explicit relationship between § 4 and § 5 and the critical role that § 5 is to play in securing the promise of § 4(a), it is wholly logical to interpret "State . . . with respect to which" § 4(a) is in effect as referring to all political units within it. Pp. 435 U. S. 126-129.

(c) The contemporaneous administrative construction of § 5 by the Attorney General and the legislative history of the enactment and reenactments of the Act compel the conclusion that Congress always understood that § 5 covers all political units within designated jurisdictions like Alabama. Pp. 435 U. S. 129-135.

2. The Attorney General's failure to object to the holding of the referendum did not constitute clearance under § 5 of the method of electing city councilmen under the new government. Since Sheffield sought approval only for the holding of the referendum, not for preclearance

Page 435 U. S. 112

of the change in the city's form of government, and the Attorney General had warned the city that the change itself required prior federal scrutiny and advised what detailed information would be necessary for that purpose, it is irrelevant that he might have been on notice that, if the referendum passed, Sheffield would, under state law, have had to adopt an at-large system of councilmanic elections. Pp. 135135-138.

430 F.Supp. 786, reversed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, and in Part III of which POWELL, J., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 435 U. S. 138. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 435 U. S. 139. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J.,and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 435 U. S. 140.

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