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U.S. Supreme Court

City of Port Arthur v. United States, 459 U.S. 159 (1982)

City of Port Arthur v. United States

No. 81-708

Argued October 6, 1982

Decided December 13, 1982

459 U.S. 159


Under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a covered State or political subdivision, such as appellant city of Port Arthur, must obtain federal preclearance of a change in its voting practices or procedures either from the Attorney General or by obtaining a declaratory judgment from the District Court for the District of Columbia that the proposed change has neither the purpose nor the effect of denying the right to vote on account of race. In 1977 and 1978, Port Arthur was consolidated with two neighboring cities and annexed an incorporated area, with the result that the percentage of the black population within Port Arthur's borders decreased from 45.21% to 40.56%. Appellant ultimately filed a § 5 suit in the District Court, seeking approval of the consolidations and the annexation, and of a proposed expansion of its City Council from seven members (including a mayor), who had been previously elected at large by majority vote, to a nine-member Council. After the rejection of earlier electoral plans, appellant submitted a plan involving election of councilmen from four single-member districts, two of which included black majorities; election of two members from two other districts, each of which consisted of two of the four single-member districts, and one of which had a black majority; and at-large election of two other members from the latter two districts and of the mayor. All Council seats would be governed by a majority vote rule, requiring runoffs if none of the candidates received a majority of the votes cast. Although concluding that the expansion of Port Arthur's borders could not be denied preclearance as being discriminatory in purpose, the District Court held that the electoral plan could not be approved under § 5 because it insufficiently neutralized the adverse impact upon minority voting strength that resulted from the expansion. However, the court stated that, if the plan were modified to eliminate the majority vote requirement with respect to the two nonmayoral, at-large candidates, and to permit election to those two seats to be made by a plurality vote, the court would consider the defect remedied, and would offer its approval.

Held: The District Court did not exceed its authority in conditioning clearance of the electoral plan on the elimination of the majority vote requirement. Pp. 459 U. S. 165-168.

Page 459 U. S. 160

(a) Section 5 does not forbid all expansion of municipal borders that dilute the voting power of particular groups in the community. However, such an expansion can be approved only if modifications in the electoral plan, calculated to neutralize to the extent possible any adverse effect on the political participation of minority groups, are adopted. Pp. 459 U. S. 165-166.

(b) The District Court did not err in holding that the majority vote requirement as to the nonmayoral, at-large council seats must be eliminated in order to sufficiently dispel the impact of Port Arthur's expansion on the relative political strength of the black community. Whether the plan adequately reflected black political strength in the enlarged city is not an issue that is determinable with mathematical precision. Since the plan undervalued to some extent the political strength of the black community, eliminating the majority vote requirement was an understandable adjustment. And, even if the electoral scheme might otherwise be said to reflect the political strength of the minority community, elimination of the majority vote element was a reasonable hedge against the possibility that the scheme contained a purposefully discriminatory element. Pp. 459 U. S. 166-168.


WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined,post, p. 459 U. S. 169.

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