CITY OF MOBILE V. BOLDEN, 446 U. S. 55 (1980)

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U.S. Supreme Court

City of Mobile v. Bolden, 446 U.S. 55 (1980)

City of Mobile v. Bolden

No. 77-1844

Argued March 19, 1979

Reargued October 29, 1979

Decided April 22, 1980

446 U.S. 55


Mobile, Ala., is governed by a Commission consisting of three members elected at large who jointly exercise all legislative, executive, and administrative power in the city. Appellees brought a class action in Federal District Court against the city and the incumbent Commissioners on behalf of all Negro citizens of the city, alleging, inter alia, that the practice of electing the City Commissioners at large unfairly diluted the voting strength of Negroes in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Although finding that Negroes in Mobile "register and vote without hindrance," the District Court nevertheless held that the at-large electoral system violated the Fifteenth Amendment and invidiously discriminated against Negroes in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and ordered that the Commission be disestablished and replaced by a Mayor and a Council elected from single-member districts. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded. Pp. 446 U. S. 61-80; 446 U. S. 80-83; 446 U. S. 83-94.

571 F.2d 238, reversed and remanded.


1. Mobile's at-large electoral system does not violate the rights of the city's Negro voters in contravention of the Fifteenth Amendment. Racially discriminatory motivation is a necessary ingredient of a Fifteenth Amendment violation. The Amendment does not entail the right to have Negro candidates elected, but prohibits only purposefully discriminatory denial or abridgment by government of the freedom to vote "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Here, having found that Negroes in Mobile register and vote without hindrance, the courts below erred in believing that appellants invaded the protection of the Fifteenth Amendment. Pp. 446 U. S. 61-65.

2. Nor does Mobile's at-large electoral system violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 446 U. S. 65-80.

Page 446 U. S. 56

(a) Only if there is purposeful discrimination can there be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. And this principle applies to claims of racial discrimination affecting voting just as it does to other claims of racial discrimination. Pp. 446 U. S. 66-68.

(b) Disproportionate effects alone are insufficient to establish a claim of unconstitutional racial vote dilution. Where the character of a law is readily explainable on grounds apart from race, as would nearly always be true where, as here, an entire system of local governance is brought into question, disproportionate impact alone cannot be decisive, and courts must look to other evidence to support a finding of discriminatory purpose. Pp. 446 U. S. 68-70.

(c) Even assuming that an at-large municipal electoral system such as Mobile's is constitutionally indistinguishable from the election of a few members of a state legislature in multimember districts, it is clear that the evidence in this case fell far short of showing that appellants "conceived or operated [a] purposeful devic[e] to further racial . . . discrimination," Whitcomb v. Chavis, 403 U. S. 124, 403 U. S. 149. Pp. 446 U. S. 70-74.

(d) The Equal Protection Clause does not require proportional representation as an imperative of political organization. While the Clause confers a substantive right to participate in elections on an equal basis with other qualified voters, this right does not protect any "political group," however defined, from electoral defeat. Since Mobile is a unitary electoral district and the Commission elections are conducted at large, there can be no claim that the "one person, one vote" principle has been violated, and therefore nobody's vote has been "diluted" in the sense in which that word was used in Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U. S. 533. Pp. 446 U. S. 75-80.

MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN concluded that the relief afforded appellees by the District Court was not commensurate with the sound exercise of judicial discretion. The court at least should have considered alternative remedial orders to converting Mobile's government to a mayor-council system, and, in failing to do so, the court appears to have been overly concerned with eliminating at-large elections per se, rather than with structuring an electoral system that provided an opportunity for black voters to participate in the city's government on an equal footing with whites. Pp. 446 U. S. 80-83.

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS concluded that the proper standard for adjudging the constitutionality of a political structure, such as Mobile's, that treats all individuals as equals but adversely affects the political strength of an identifiable minority group, is the same whether the minority is identified by a racial, ethnic, religious, or economic characteristic; that Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U. S. 339, suggests that the standard asks

Page 446 U. S. 57

(1) whether the political structure is manifestly not the product of a routine or traditional decision, (2) whether it has a significant adverse impact on a minority group, and (3) whether it is unsupported by any neutral justification and thus was either totally irrational or entirely motivated by a desire to curtail the political strength of the minority; and that the standard focuses on the objective effects of the political decision, rather than the subjective motivation of the decisionmaker. Under this standard, the choice to retain Mobile's commission form of government must be accepted as constitutionally permissible even though the choice may well be the product of mixed motivation, some of which is invidious. Pp. 446 U. S. 83-94.

STEWART, J., announced the Court's judgment and delivered an opinion, in which BURGER, C.J.,and POWELL and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, post, p. 446 U. S. 80. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 446 U. S. 83. BRENNAN, J., post, p. 446 U. S. 94, WHITE, J., post, p. 446 U. S. 94, and MARSHALL, J., post, p. 446 U. S. 103, filed dissenting opinions.

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