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CITY PORT ARTHUR v. UNITED STATES ET AL.

decided: December 13, 1982.

CITY OF PORT ARTHUR, TEXAS
v.
UNITED STATES ET AL.



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA.

White, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens, JJ., joined. Powell, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist and O'connor, JJ., joined, post, p. 169.

Author: White

[ 459 U.S. Page 160]

 JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 79 Stat. 439, as amended, 42 U. S. C. § 1973c, requires that when a State or

[ 459 U.S. Page 161]

     political subdivision covered by the Act*fn1 adopts or seeks to administer any change in its standards, practices, or procedures with respect to voting, it must obtain a preclearance either from the Attorney General of the United States or by obtaining a declaratory judgment from the District Court for the District of Columbia that the proposed change has neither the purpose nor the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race.*fn2 Perkins v. Matthews, 400 U.S. 379 (1971), held that changes in the boundary lines of a city by annexations that enlarge the number of eligible voters are events covered by § 5. The question in this case is whether the District Court for the District of Columbia correctly

[ 459 U.S. Page 162]

     held that the electoral plan for the Port Arthur, Tex., City Council could not be approved under § 5 because it insufficiently neutralized the adverse impact upon minority voting strength that resulted from the expansion of the city's borders by two consolidations and an annexation.

I

In December 1977, the city of Port Arthur, Tex., consolidated with the neighboring cities of Pear Ridge and Lake View. Six months later, the city annexed Sabine Pass, an incorporated area. As a result of these expansions of the city's borders, the percentage of the black population in Port Arthur decreased from 45.21% to 40.56%. Blacks of voting age constituted 35% of the population of the enlarged city.*fn3

Prior to the expansions, the city was governed by a seven-member Council, including a mayor, each member being elected at large by majority vote. Each member except the mayor was required to reside in a specific district of the city. Members were elected for staggered terms. Following the two consolidations, the City Council passed an ordinance adding an eighth member to the Council, while retaining the at-large system with residency requirements. After the annexation of Sabine Pass, the city further proposed that the Council be expanded to nine members, with at-large elections as before. The two consolidations and the annexation, together with the proposed changes in the governing system, were submitted to the Attorney General for preclearance

[ 459 U.S. Page 163]

     pursuant to § 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The Attorney General refused preclearance, suggesting, however, that he would reconsider if the Council members were elected from fairly drawn single-member districts.

As § 5 permitted it to do, the city then filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia seeking a declaratory judgment that the expansions and the nine-member plan did not have the purpose or effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of color or race within the meaning of § 5. While that suit was pending, the city approved by referendum the "4-4-1" plan, calling for four members to be elected from single-member districts, four to be elected at large from residency districts identical to the single-member districts, and the ninth member, the mayor, to be elected at large without any residency requirement.*fn4 That plan, like the previous plans, required a majority vote to elect each Council member. The city then moved to amend its complaint so as to seek a declaratory judgment as to the legality of the 4-4-1 plan.

The District Court concluded that because there were legitimate purposes behind the annexation and the consolidations, those actions, under City of Richmond v. United States, 422 U.S. 358 (1975), could not be denied preclearance as discriminatory in purpose. 517 F.Supp. 987 (1981). Because the expansions had substantially reduced the relative political strength of the black population, however, it was necessary for preclearance that the postexpansion electoral system be found to satisfy the requirements of § 5. The District Court held that neither the first nine-member plan nor the 4-4-1 plan measured up, not only because each was adopted with a discriminatory purpose, but also because in the context of the severe racial bloc voting characteristic of the recent past in the city neither plan adequately reflected

[ 459 U.S. Page 164]

     the minority's potential political strength in the enlarged community as required under City of Rome v. United States, 446 U.S. 156 (1980); City of Richmond v. United States, supra ; and City of Petersburg v. United States, 354 F.Supp. 1021 (DC 1972), summarily aff'd, 410 U.S. 962 (1973).

Soon after this decision, the city and the United States jointly submitted to the court for approval the "4-2-3" electoral plan. Under this scheme, the city would be divided into four single-member districts, Districts 1 through 4. District 5, comprising Districts 1 and 4 would elect another member, as would District 6, which combined Districts 2 and 3. Three additional members would be elected at large, one each from Districts 5 and 6, the third at-large seat to be occupied by the mayor and to have no residency requirement. All Council seats would be governed by the majority-vote rule, that is, runoffs would be required if none of the candidates voted on received a majority of the votes cast. Blacks constituted a majority in Districts 1 and 4, 79% and 62.78% respectively, as well as a 70.83% majority of the fifth district combining the two majority black districts. The ...


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