Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder

Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder
Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued April 29, 2009
Decided June 22, 2009
Full case name Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Eric Holder, Attorney General
Docket nos. 08-322
Citations 557 U.S. ___
§5 of the Voting Rights Act stands, but districts should be better able to "bail out" of it per §4(a)
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Roberts, joined by Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito
Dissent Thomas

Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, 557 U.S. ___ (2009), was a decision of the United States Supreme Court regarding Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and in particular its requirement that proposed electoral-law changes in certain states must first receive pre-clearance from the Federal government. In an 8-1 opinion, the Court declined to rule on the constitutionality of that provision; citing the principle of Constitutional avoidance, it merely concluded that the district was eligible to apply for an exemption (bailout) from this section per §4(a), because the definition of "political subdivision" in §14(c)(2) included a district of this nature.



The appellant is a small utility district with an elected board. Because it is located in Texas, it is required by §5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Act) to seek federal preclearance before it can change anything about its elections, even though there is no evidence it has ever discriminated on the basis of race in those elections. §5 applies to states with a past history of discrimination, especially in the South given Jim Crow-era laws.[1]

The district filed suit seeking relief under the “bailout” provision in §4(a) of the Act, which allows a “political subdivision” to be released from the preclearance requirements if certain conditions are met. It argued in the alternative that, if §5 were interpreted to render it ineligible for bailout, §5 was unconstitutional.

The Federal District Court rejected both claims. It concluded that bailout under §4(a) is available only to counties, parishes, and subunits that register voters, not to an entity like the district that does not register its own voters. It also concluded that a 2006 amendment extending §5 for 25 years was constitutional.

Arguments were held on April 29, 2009. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito questioned why Congress did not extend Section 5 to all 50 states.[2]

Opinion of the Court

Section I [legal and historical background]

In Part A, Roberts described the Fifteenth Amendment's problematic history of enforcement that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, much of which consists of a "scheme of stringent remedies aimed at areas where voting discrimination has been most flagrant."[3] These remedies were bolstered by §5, which suspended any change in state election procedure until the federal government certified that it neither "has the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color." To confine these remedies to areas of flagrant disenfranchisement, the Act applied them only to States that met certain explicit standards. However, recognizing that this coverage formula "might bring within its sweep governmental units not guilty of any unlawful discriminatory voting practices, [Congress] afforded such jurisdictions immediately available protection in the form of ... [a] 'bailout' suit."[4]

Roberts then laid out the requirements of such a suit under D. C. 42 U. S. C. §§1973b. He noted that §§4 and 5 were temporary provisions—they were originally expected to be in effect for only five years. §4(a), 79 Stat. 438. However, Congress reauthorized the Act in 1970 (for 5 years), 1975 (for 7 years), and 1982 (for 25 years); each reauthorization was litigated as unconstitutional, and each time the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality. Most recently, in 2006, Congress extended §5 for yet another 25 years. It was this latest extension that was now before the court.

Part B characterized the procedural history of the District's suit.

Section II [Constitutional claim]

In Section II, Justice Roberts acknowledged the "undeniable" historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act. However, the Act "now raises serious constitutional concerns." In particular, §5, "which authorizes federal intrusion into sensitive areas of state and local policymaking, imposes substantial 'federalism costs,' "[5] costs which have caused Members of this Court to express serious misgivings about the constitutionality of §5.[6] Meanwhile, some of the conditions that the Court relied upon when it previously upheld this statutory scheme[7] have unquestionably improved. "Those improvements are no doubt due in significant part to the Voting Rights Act itself, and stand as a monument to its success," but the Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs. The Act also differentiates between the States in ways that may no longer be justified.

The Court recognizes that judging the constitutionality of an Act of Congress is “the gravest and most delicate duty that this Court is called upon to perform.”[8] The District Court found that Congress's contributions to the record documented continuing racial discrimination, and that §5 deterred discriminatory changes. The Court will not shrink from its duty “as the bulwark of a limited Constitution against legislative encroachments,”[9] but “[i]t is . . . well established. . . that normally the Court will not decide a constitutional question if there is some other ground upon which to dispose of the case."[10] Here, the district does provide such other grounds: it raises a statutory claim that it is eligible to bail out under §§4 and 5. The existence of this claim invokes this principle of "Constitutional avoidance," as characterized in Escambia County v. McMillan.[10]

The Court disagreed with Justice Thomas's argument that this principle has no pertinence here. He contends that even if the Court resolved the district's statutory argument in its favor, it would still have to reach the constitutional question, because the district's statutory argument would not afford it all the relief it seeks. However, the district expressly describes its constitutional challenge to §5 as being "in the alternative" to its statutory argument.[11] The district's counsel confirmed this at oral argument.[12]

Section III [Statutory claim]

In Section III, Roberts addressed the district's narrower argument that it is eligible for a bailout under the requirements of §§4 and 5. The question hinged on the intended definition of the term "[P]olitical subdivision" as used in §14(c)(2). The Court concluded that "all political subdivisions--not only those described in §14(c)(2)--are eligible to file a bailout suit," thus overturning the district court.

  • The Act must be interpreted to permit all political subdivisions,including the district, to seek to bail out from the preclearance requirements. It is undisputed that the district is a “political subdivision” in the ordinary sense, but the Act also provides a narrower definition in §14(c)(2): “ ‘[P]olitical subdivision’ shall mean any county or parish, except that where registration for voting is not conducted under the supervision of a county or parish, the term shall include any other subdivision of a State which conducts registration for voting.” The court below concluded that the district did not qualify for§4(a) bailout under this definition, but specific precedent, the Act’s structure, and underlying constitutional concerns compel a broader reading.
  • This Court has already established that §14(c)(2)’s definition does not apply to the term “political subdivision” in §5’s preclearance provision. [13] Rather, the “definition was intended to operate only for purposes of determining which political units in nondesignated States may be separately designated for coverage under §4(b).” [14] ”[O]nce a State has been [so] designated . . . , [the] definition . . . has no operative significance in determining [§5’s] reach.” [15] In light of these decisions, §14(c)(2)’s definition should not constrict the availability of bailout either.
    • The Government responds that any such argument is foreclosed by City of Rome. In 1982, however, Congress expressly repudiated City of Rome. Thus, City of Rome’s logic is no longer applicable.
    • The Government’s contention that the district is subject to §5 under Sheffield not because it is a “political subdivision” but because it is a “State” is counterintuitive and similarly untenable after the 1982 amendments. The Government’s contrary interpretation has helped to render the bailout provision all but a nullity. Since 1982, only 17 jurisdictions—out of the more than 12,000 covered political subdivisions—have successfully bailed out of the Act. It is unlikely that Congress intended the provision to have such limited effect.


Justice Clarence Thomas was the sole dissenter. He argued that Section 5 is no longer constitutional.[16]

Section I

Section II

See also

  • List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 557
  • List of United States Supreme Court cases


  1. ^ "Supreme Court wrestles with Voting Rights Act case". Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 2009-04-29. Retrieved 2009-06-22. 
  2. ^ Savage, David G. (2009-04-30). "Voting Rights Act section that singles out South may be abolished". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2009-06-22. 
  3. ^ South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U. S. 301, 315 (1966)
  4. ^ Briscoe v. Bell, 432 U. S. 404, 411 (1977)
  5. ^ Lopez, supra, at 282 (quoting Miller v. Johnson, 515 U. S. 900, 926 (1995))
  6. ^ Katzenbach, 383 U. S., at 358-362 (Black, J., concurring and dissenting); Allen, 393 U. S., at 586, n. 4 (Harlan, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part); Georgia, supra, at 545 (Powell, J., dissenting); City of Rome, 446 U. S., at 209-221 (Rehnquist, J., dissenting); id., at 200-206 (Powell, J., dissenting); Lopez, 525 U. S., at 293-298 (Thomas, J., dissenting); id., at 288 (Kennedy, J., concurring in judgment).
  7. ^ in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U. S. 301, and City of Rome v. United States, 446 U. S. 156
  8. ^ Blodgett v. Holden, 275 U. S. 142, 147–148 (Holmes, J., concurring)
  9. ^ The Federalist No. 78
  10. ^ a b Escambia County v. McMillan, 466 U. S. 48, 51
  11. ^ See Brief for Appellant 64 ("[T]he Court should reverse the judgment of the district court and render judgment that the district is entitled to use the bailout procedure or, in the alternative, that §5 cannot be constitutionally applied to the district").
  12. ^ See Tr. of Oral Arg. 14 ("[Question:] [D]o you acknowledge that if we find in your favor on the bailout point we need not reach the constitutional point? [Answer:] I do acknowledge that").
  13. ^ See, e.g., United States v. Sheffield Bd. of Comm’rs, 435 U. S. 110.
  14. ^ Id., at 128–129.
  15. ^ Dougherty County Bd. of Ed. v. White, 439 U. S. 32, 44.
  16. ^ Stout, David (2009-06-22). "Justices Let Stand a Central Provision of Voting Rights Act". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-06-22. 

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