Clark v. Roemer

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Clark v. Roemer by Anthony Kennedy
Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

500 U.S. 646

Clark  v.  Roemer

No. 90-952  Argued: April 22, 1991. --- Decided: June 3, 1991


Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires covered jurisdictions to obtain either judicial preclearance from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia or administrative preclearance from the United States Attorney General before implementing new voting practices, in order to prevent changes that have a discriminatory purpose or effect. Appellants, black registered voters and a voting rights organization in Louisiana, filed suit in the District Court, challenging the validity of Louisiana's electoral scheme for certain judges under, inter alia, § 5. In response to their 1987 amended complaint alleging that a number of statutory and constitutional changes, many of which were adopted in the late 1960's and 1970's, had not been precleared under § 5, Louisiana submitted all of the unprecleared voting changes for administrative preclearance. In June 1990, after the Attorney General had objected to preclearance for some changes, including the creation of several judgeships, Louisiana asked him to reconsider and proceeded with plans to hold fall elections for all of the seats. The District Court denied appellants' motion to enjoin the elections for the unprecleared seats, but enjoined the winners from taking office pending its further orders. In October, the court, noting that some of the judgeships to which the Attorney General now objected were in districts where the State had obtained administrative preclearance for later-created judgeships, ruled that the Attorney General had precleared the earlier judgeships when he precleared the later, or related, voting changes. The court also refused to enjoin elections for those judgeships that it found were subject to valid objections by the Attorney General and violated § 5, holding that the winners could take office, pending judicial preclearance.


1. The District Court erred by not enjoining elections for judgeships to which the Attorney General interposed valid objections. Section 5 requires preclearance. Without it, a voting change will not be effective as law, Connor v. Waller, 421 U.S. 656, 95 S.Ct. 2003, 44 L.Ed.2d 486, and is unenforceable, Hathorn v. Lovorn, 457 U.S. 255, 269, 102 S.Ct. 2421, 2430, 72 L.Ed.2d 824. Moreover, § 5 plaintiffs are entitled to an injunction prohibiting a State from implementing changes that have not been precleared, Allen v. State Bd. of Elections, 393 U.S. 544, 572, 89 S.Ct. 817, 835, 22 L.Ed.2d 1. The court's reasons for refusing to enjoin the elections lack merit. Appellants displayed no lack of diligence in challenging the elections, and every participant in the process knew for over three years that the challenged seats were unprecleared. Nor was § 5's applicability to judges uncertain until 1990, since this Court issued a summary affirmance of a decision holding that § 5 applied to judges in 1986, Haith v. Martin, 618 F.Supp. 410, aff'd mem., 477 U.S. 901, 106 S.Ct. 3268, 91 L.Ed.2d 559. The court's concern about the potential for voter confusion and low voter turnout in a special election for the unprecleared seats did not justify its position, since voters may be more confused and inclined to avoid the polls when an election is held in conceded violation of federal law. Moreover, the court's stated purpose to avoid possible challenges to civil and criminal judgments counsels in favor of enjoining the illegal elections, thus averting a federal challenge to state judgments. This Court's decisions dealing with the ex post question whether to set aside illegal elections, see, e.g., Perkins v. Matthews, 400 U.S. 379, 91 S.Ct. 431, 27 L.Ed.2d 476, are inapposite to the instant case, which addresses the ex ante question whether to allow illegal elections to be held at all. And it is not necessary to decide here whether there are instances in which a court may deny a motion for an injunction and allow an election to go forward. Pp. 652-655.

2. The State's failure to preclear certain earlier voting changes under § 5 was not cured by the Attorney General's preclearance of later, or related, voting changes. McCain v. Lybrand, 465 U.S. 236, 104 S.Ct. 1037, 79 L.Ed.2d 271, made clear that the submission of legislation for administrative preclearance under § 5 defines the preclearance request's scope. Normally, a submission pertains only to identified changes in that legislation, and any ambiguity in the request's scope must be resolved against the submitting authority. A submission's description of the change from one number of judges to another in a particular judicial district does not, by itself, constitute a submission to the Attorney General of the prior voting changes incorporated in the newly amended statute. The requirement that a State identify each change is necessary for the Attorney General to perform his preclearance duties, since otherwise he would have to add to his redoubtable obligations the additional duty to research each submission to ensure that all earlier unsubmitted changes had been brought. Here, Louisiana's submissions of contemporary legislation to the Attorney General failed as a matter of law to put him on notice that the prior unsubmitted changes were included. Pp. 655-659.

3. Appellants' request that the elections held for the seats in question be set aside and the judges be removed is not a proper matter for this Court to consider in the first instance. Pp. 659-660.

751 F.Supp. 586 (M.D.La.1990), reversed and remanded.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Robert B. McDuff, for appellants.

James A. Feldman, for U.S., as amicus curiae, supporting appellants, by special leave of Court.

Robert G. Pugh, Jr., for appellees.

Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).