Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, 129 S. Ct. 2504; 174 L. Ed. 2d 140; 2009 U.S. LEXIS 4539 (2009)

Facts—A small utility district with an elected board in Texas was required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to get federal preclearance before it could change its elections. A U.S. District Court rejected claims that the utility should be eligible to bypass this provision under the “bailout” provision in Section 4(a) of the Act or that Section 5 was unconstitutional. The district sued Attorney General Holder.

Questions—a) Is the utility district eligible for the bailout provision? b) Is the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act justified under Section 2 (the enforcement provision) of the Fifteenth Amendment?

Decisions—a) Yes; b) Issue avoided.

ReasonsC.J. Roberts (8 ½ to ½). Roberts largely confines his opinion to statutory construction. Deciding that the district is eligible to pursue the bailout option, he decided not to reach the constitutional question. Roberts did observe that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was intended to be temporary, and that the original act of 1965 had been extended to the year 2031. Many of the problems it sought to address had been so addressed. Section 5 had gone beyond the prohibitions of the Fifteenth Amendment, and the data on which it had been based was now dated. Both the “Act’s preclearance requirements and its coverage formula raise serious constitutional questions.” Although the Court should not “shrink” from its duty, it is proper to decide a case on statutory grounds where the Court can avoid constitutional issues, and past definitions of “political subdivisions” allowed the utility district, and other state subdivisions, to apply for an exemption.

J. Thomas concurred in the judgment but, absent assurance that the utility district would actually receive a bailout, would have held that Section 5 exceeded congressional authority to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment. States had primary authority to structure their electoral systems. The exceptional circumstances that gave rise to Section 5 no longer existed and cannot be justified where evidence of intentional discrimination is lacking. “Punishment for long past sins is not a legitimate basis for imposing a forward-looking preventative measure that has already served its purpose.”

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