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decided: March 20, 1973.



Rehnquist, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Stewart, White, Blackmun, and Powell, JJ., joined. Douglas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Brennan and Marshall, JJ., joined, post, p. 735.

Author: Rehnquist

[ 410 U.S. Page 720]

 MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is another in the line of cases in which the Court has had occasion to consider the limits imposed by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment on legislation apportioning representation in state and local governing bodies and establishing qualifications for voters in the election of such representatives. Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964), enunciated the constitutional standard for apportionment of state legislatures. Later cases such as Avery v. Midland County, 390 U.S. 474 (1968), and Hadley v. Junior College District, 397 U.S. 50 (1970), extended the Reynolds rule to the governing bodies of a county and of a junior college district, respectively. We are here presented with the issue expressly reserved in Avery, supra :

"Were the [county's governing body] a special-purpose unit of government assigned the performance of functions affecting definable groups of constituents

[ 410 U.S. Page 721]

     more than other constituents, we would have to confront the question whether such a body may be apportioned in ways which give greater influence to the citizens most affected by the organization's functions." 390 U.S., at 483-484.

The particular type of local government unit whose organization is challenged on constitutional grounds in this case is a water storage district, organized pursuant to the California Water Storage District Act, Calif. Water Code § 39000 et seq. The peculiar problems of adequate water supplies faced by most of the western third of the Nation have been described by Mr. Justice Sutherland, who was himself intimately familiar with them, in California Oregon Power Co. v. Beaver Portland Cement Co., 295 U.S. 142, 156-157 (1935):

"These states and territories comprised the western third of the United States -- a vast empire in extent, but still sparsely settled. From a line east of the Rocky Mountains almost to the Pacific Ocean, and from the Canadian border to the boundary of Mexico -- an area greater than that of the original thirteen states -- the lands capable of redemption, in the main, constituted a desert, impossible of agricultural use without artificial irrigation.

"In the beginning, the task of reclaiming this area was left to the unaided efforts of the people who found their way by painful effort to its inhospitable solitudes. These western pioneers, emulating the spirit of so many others who had gone before them in similar ventures, faced the difficult problem of wresting a living and creating homes from the raw elements about them, and threw down the gage of battle to the forces of nature. With imperfect tools, they built dams, excavated canals, constructed ditches, plowed and cultivated the soil, and transformed

[ 410 U.S. Page 722]

     dry and desolate lands into green fields and leafy orchards. . . ."

Californians, in common with other residents of the West, found the State's rivers and streams in their natural state to present the familiar paradox of feast or famine. With melting snow in the high mountains in the spring, small streams became roaring freshets, and the rivers they fed carried the potential for destructive floods. But with the end of the rainy season in the early spring, farmers depended entirely upon water from such streams and rivers until the rainy season again began in the fall. Long before that time, however, rivers which ran bank full in the spring had been reduced to a bare trickle of water.

It was not enough therefore, for individual farmers or groups of farmers to build irrigation canals and ditches which depended for their operation on the natural flow of these streams. Storage dams had to be constructed to impound in their reservoirs the flow of the rivers at flood stage for later release during the dry season regimen of these streams. For the construction of major dams to facilitate the storage of water for irrigation of large areas, the full resources of the State and frequently of the Federal Government were necessary.*fn1

But for less costly projects which would benefit a more restricted geographic area, the State was frequently either unable or unwilling to pledge its credit or its resources. The California Legislature, therefore, has authorized a number of instrumentalities, including water storage districts such as the appellee here, to provide a local response to water problems.

Some history of the experience of California and the other Western States with the problems of water distribution

[ 410 U.S. Page 723]

     is contained in Fallbrook Irrigation District v. Bradley, 164 U.S. 112, 151-154 (1896), in which the constitutionality of California's Wright Act was sustained against claims of denial of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. While the irrigation district was apparently the first local governmental unit authorized to deal with water distribution, it is by no means the only one. General legislation in California authorizes the creation, not only of irrigation districts, but of water conservation districts, water storage and conservation districts, flood control districts, and water storage districts such as appellee.*fn2

Appellee district consists of 193,000 acres of intensively cultivated, highly fertile farm land located in the Tulare Lake Basin. Its population consists of 77 persons, including 18 children, most of whom are employees of one or another of the four corporations that farm 85% of the land in the district.

Such districts are authorized to plan projects and execute approved projects "for the acquisition, appropriation, diversion, storage, conservation, and distribution of water . . . ." Calif. Water Code § 42200 et seq.*fn3 Incidental to this general power, districts may "acquire, improve, and operate" any necessary works for the storage

[ 410 U.S. Page 724]

     and distribution of water as well as any drainage or reclamation works connected therewith, and the generation and distribution of hydroelectric power may be provided for.*fn4 Id., §§ 43000, 43025. They may fix tolls and charges for the use of water and collect them from all persons receiving the benefit of the water or other services in proportion to the services rendered. Id ., § 43006. The costs of the projects are assessed against district land in accordance with the benefits accruing to each tract held in separate ownership. Id., §§ 46175, 46176. And land that is not benefited may be withdrawn from the district on petition. Id., § 48029.

Governance of the districts is undertaken by a board of directors. Id., § 40658. Each director is elected from one of the divisions within the district, id., § 39929, and each must take an official oath and execute a bond. Id., § 40301. General elections for the directors are to be held in odd-numbered years. Id., §§ 39027, 41300 et seq.

It is the voter qualification for such elections that appellants claim invidiously discriminates against them and persons similarly situated. Appellants are landowners, a landowner-lessee, and residents within the area included in the appellee's water storage district. They brought this action under 42 U. S. C. § 1983, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief in an effort to prevent appellee from giving effect to certain provisions of the California Water Code. They allege that §§ 41000*fn5 and 41001*fn6 unconstitutionally deny to them the equal protection

[ 410 U.S. Page 725]

     of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, in that only landowners are permitted to vote in water storage district general elections, and votes in those elections are apportioned according to the assessed valuation of the land. A three-judge court was convened pursuant to 28 U. S. C. § 2284, and the case was submitted on factual statements of the parties and briefs, without testimony or oral argument. A majority of the District Court held that both statutes comported with the dictates of the Equal Protection Clause, and appellants have appealed that judgment directly to this Court under 28 U. S. C. § 1253.

In Williams v. Rhodes, 393 U.S. 23 (1968), a case in which the Ohio legislative scheme for regulating the electoral franchise was challenged, the Court said:

"This Court has firmly established the principle that the Equal Protection Clause does not make every minor difference in the application of laws to different groups a violation of our Constitution. But we have also held many times that 'invidious' distinctions cannot be enacted without a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. In determining whether or not a state law violates the Equal Protection Clause, we must consider the facts and circumstances behind the law, the interests which the State claims to be protecting, and the interests of those who are disadvantaged by the classification." Id., at 30.

We therefore turn now to the determination of whether the California statutory scheme establishing water storage districts violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

[ 410 U.S. Page 726]


It is first argued that § 41000, limiting the vote to district landowners, is unconstitutional since nonlandowning residents have as much interest in the operations of a district as landowners who may or may not be residents. Particularly, it is pointed out that the homes of residents may be damaged by floods within the district's boundaries, and that floods may, as with appellant Ellison, cause them to lose their jobs. Support for this position is said to come from the recent decisions of this Court striking down various state laws that limited voting to landowners, Phoenix v. Kolodziejski, 399 U.S. 204 (1970), Cipriano v. City of Houma, 395 U.S. 701 (1969), and Kramer v. Union School District, 395 U.S. 621 (1969).

In Kramer, the Court was confronted with a voter qualification statute for school district elections that limited the vote to otherwise qualified district residents who were either (1) the owners or lessees of taxable real property located within the district, (2) spouses of persons owning qualifying property, or (3) parents or guardians of children enrolled for a specified time during the preceding year in a local district school. Without reaching the issue of whether or not a State may in some circumstances limit the exercise of the franchise to those primarily interested or primarily affected by a given governmental unit, it was held that the above classifications did not meet that state-articulated goal since they excluded many persons who had distinct and direct interests in school meeting decisions and included many persons who had, at best, remote and indirect interests. Id., at 632-633.

Similarly, in Cipriano v. City of Houma, supra, decided the same day, provisions of Louisiana law which gave only property ...

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