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HOUSTON LAWYERS' ASSOCIATION ET AL. v. ATTORNEY GENERAL TEXAS ET AL. LEAGUE UNITED LATIN AMERICAN CITIZENS ET AL.

decided*fn*: June 20, 1991.

HOUSTON LAWYERS' ASSOCIATION ET AL., PETITIONERS
v.
ATTORNEY GENERAL OF TEXAS ET AL.

LEAGUE OF UNITED LATIN AMERICAN CITIZENS ET AL., PETITIONERS
v.
ATTORNEY GENERAL OF TEXAS ET AL.



ON WRITS OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which White, Marshall, Blackmun, O'connor, and Souter, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Kennedy, J., joined.

Author: Stevens

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Chisom v. Roemer, ante, at , we held that judicial elections, and, more specifically, elections of justices of the Supreme Court of Louisiana, are covered by § 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 79 Stat. 437, as amended in 1982, 42 U.S.C. § 1973. In this case we consider whether the statute also applies to the election of trial judges in Texas. We hold that it does.

I

Petitioners in No. 90-974 are local chapters of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a statewide organization composed of both Mexican-American and African-American residents of the State of Texas, and various individuals. They brought this action against the Attorney General of Texas and other officials (respondents) to challenge the existing at-large, countywide method of electing state district judges. Although the original challenge encompassed the entire State, and relied on both constitutional and statutory grounds, the issues were later narrowed to include only a statutory challenge to the voting methods in just 10 counties.*fn* Petitioners in No. 90-813 are the Houston Lawyers' Association, an organization of African-American attorneys who are registered voters in Harris County, and certain individuals; they are intervenors, supporting the position of the original plaintiffs. Because all of the petitioners have the same interest in the threshold issue of statutory construction that is now before us, we shall refer to them collectively as "petitioners."

Texas district courts are the State's trial courts of general jurisdiction. Electoral districts for Texas district judges consist of one or more entire counties. Eight of the districts included in this case include a single county; the other district includes two counties. The number of district judges in each district at issue varies from the 59 that sit in the Harris County district to the 3 that sit in the Midland County district. Each judge is elected by the voters in the district in which he or she sits pursuant to an at-large, district-wide electoral scheme, and must be a resident of that district. Although several judicial candidates in the same district may be running in the same election, each runs for a separately numbered position. Thus, for example, if there are 25 vacancies in the Harris County district in a particular year, there are 25 district-wide races for 25 separately numbered positions. In the primary elections, the winner must receive a majority of votes, but in the general election the candidate with the highest number of votes for a particular numbered position is elected.

Petitioners challenged the at-large, district-wide electoral scheme as diluting the voting strength of African American and Hispanic voters. They cited the example of Harris County, which has a population that is 20% African American but has only 3 of 59 district judges that are African American. The petitioners alleged that alternative electoral schemes using electoral subdistricts or modified at-large structures could remedy the dilution of minority votes in district judge elections.

Following a one-week trial, the District Court ruled in favor of petitioners on their statutory vote dilution claim. It concluded that petitioners had sustained their burden of proving that under the totality of the circumstances "as a result of the challenged at large system [they] do not have an equal opportunity to participate in the political processes and to elect candidates of their choice," App. to Pet. for Cert., 290a-291a; 300a-301a. Although the District Court made no findings about the appropriate remedy for the proven violation, it urged the state legislature to select and approve an alternative district judge election scheme. The District Court also announced that it would entertain motions to enjoin future district judge elections pending the remedy phase of the litigation, should the legislature fail to adopt an alternative election scheme. When the state legislature failed to act, the District Court granted interim relief (to be used solely for the 1990 election of district judges in the nine districts) that included the creation of electoral subdistricts and a prohibition against the use of partisan elections for district judges. Respondents appealed.

A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit reversed the judgment of the District Court, 902 F.2d 293 (1990), and petitioners' motion for rehearing en banc was granted, 902 F.2d 322 (1990). The en banc majority held that the results test in § 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended in 1982, is inapplicable to judicial elections. See 914 F.2d 620 (1990). In essence, the majority concluded that Congress' reference to the voters' opportunity to elect "representatives" of their choice evidenced a deliberate decision to exclude the election of judges from scrutiny under the newly enacted test. For reasons stated in our opinion in Chisom, ante, at , we reject that conclusion.

In a separate opinion, portions of which were joined by five other judges, Judge Higginbotham expressed his disagreement with the majority's conclusion that judges are not "representatives" within the meaning of the Act, but concurred in the judgment of reversal. His opinion relied on a distinction between state appellate judges and trial judges. Whereas the justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court have statewide jurisdiction, even though they are elected by voters in separate districts, and act as members of a collegial body, the Texas trial judge has jurisdiction that is coextensive with the geographic area from which he or she is elected and has the sole authority to render final decisions. Judge Higginbotham's opinion characterized trial judges "as single-office holders instead of members of a multi-member body," 914 F.2d, at 649 (concurring opinion), because each exercises his or her authority independently of the other judges serving in the same area or on the same court. Given the State's "compelling interest in linking jurisdiction and elective base for judges acting alone," id., at 651, and the risk that "attempting to break the linkage of jurisdiction and elective base . . . may well lessen minority influence instead of increase it," id., at 649, by making only a few district court judges principally accountable to the minority electorate rather than making all of the district's judges partly accountable to minority voters, he concluded that elections for single-member offices, including elections for Texas district court judgeships, are exempt from vote dilution challenges under § 2.

Chief Judge Clark, while agreeing with the judgment of reversal on grounds "expressly limited to the facts of the present case," 914 F.2d 631 (concurring opinion), disagreed with the analysis in both the majority and the concurring opinion. He expressed the opinion that "it is equally wrong to say that section 2 covers all judicial elections as it is to say it covers none," id., at 633 (emphasis in original). Characterizing Judge Higginbotham's "function-of-the-office analysis" as "identical in concept to the majority view," ibid., Chief Judge Clark would have held that whenever an officeholder's jurisdiction and the area of residence of his or her electorate coincide, no vote dilution claims may be brought against at-large schemes for electing the officeholder, regardless of whether the "function" of the officeholder is to act alone or as a member of a collegial body.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Johnson argued that the Act applies to all judicial elections:

"Several truths are self-evident from the clear language of the statute that had heretofore opened the electoral process to people of all colors. The Voting Rights Act focuses on the voter, not the elected official. The Act was intended to prohibit racial discrimination in all voting, the sole inquiry being whether the political processes are equally open to all persons, no matter their race or color. The Act is concerned only with the intent of persons of 'race or color' in casting a ballot; ...


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