Lopez v. Monterey County, California, 519 U.S. 9 (1996)




NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.



appeal from the united states district court for the northern district of california

No. 95-1201. Argued October 8, 1996 — Decided November 6, 1996


As a jurisdiction covered by ?5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, appellee Monterey County (hereinafter County) must obtain federal preclearance–either from the Attorney General of the United States or from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia–of any voting practice different from its practices on November 1, 1968. On that date, the County had nine separate and independent inferior court districts, the judges of which were elected exclusively by their respective districts’ voters. Between 1972 and 1983, the County adopted six ordinances, which ultimately merged all the districts into a single, county wide municipal court served by judges whom County residents elected at large. This consolidation took place against a backdrop of California laws, some of which governed courts generally and others of which applied to the County’s courts specifically. In 1991, appellants, Hispanic voters residing in the County, sued in the District Court, alleging that the County had violated ?5 by failing to obtain federal preclearance of the consolidation ordinances. The three judge District Court ordered the County to obtain federal preclearance of the challenged ordinances. But the County did not submit the ordinances to the appropriate federal authorities. Instead, the County began to work with appellants to develop a new judicial election plan that they believed would be less retrogressive than the at large, county wide election scheme. The State of California, as intervenor, opposed the parties’ proposed plans. Ultimately, the District Court ordered the County to conduct judicial elections under an at large, county wide election plan. In essence, four years after the filing of the complaint, the District Court ordered the County to hold elections under the very same scheme that appellants had originally challenged under ?5 as unprecleared.


1. This Court leaves to the District Court to resolve on remand appellee State’s threshold contentions that, although the County perhaps should have submitted the consolidation ordinances for federal preclearance before implementing them, intervening changes in California law have transformed the County’s judicial election scheme into a state plan, for which ?5 preclearance is not needed; that appellants’ suit was barred by laches; that it is constitutionally improper to designate the County a covered jurisdiction under ?5; and that the consolidation ordinances did not alter a voting “standard, practice, or procedure” subject to ?5 preclearance. Pp. 9-10.

2. The District Court’s order that the County conduct elections under its unprecleared, at large judicial election plan conflicts with Clark v. Roemer, 500 U.S. 646, 652-653, in which the Court held, among other things, that a voting change subject to ?5 is unenforceable unless precleared and that ?5 plaintiffs are entitled to an injunction prohibiting implementation of an unprecleared change. Thus, an injunction is required where, as here, a district court must decide whether to allow illegal elections to go forward. Id., at 654. There is no “extreme circumstance” here that might justify allowing the 1996 elections to proceed, cf. id., at 654-655, and the District Court has not independently crafted a remedial electoral plan such as might render the preclearance requirements inapplicable, see McDaniel v. Sanchez, 452 U.S. 130, 148-150. Nor is the preclearance process’ basic nature changed by the complicating factors that a simple injunction could leave the County without a judicial election system because a return to the 1968 plan appears impractical, and that the parties seem unable to fashion a plan that does not contravene California law. Congress gave exclusive authority to pass on an election change’s discriminatory effect or purpose to the federal authorities designated in ?5. See id., at 151. On a complaint alleging failure to preclear election changes under ?5, a three judge district court may determine only whether ?5 covers a contested change, whether ?5’s approval requirements were satisfied, and if the requirements were not satisfied, what temporary remedy, if any, is appropriate. See City of Lockhart v. United States, 460 U.S. 125, 129, n. 3. The goal of a three judge district court facing a ?5 challenge must be to ensure that the covered jurisdiction submits its election plan to the appropriate federal authorities for preclearance as expeditiously as possible. Here, by protracting this litigation in order to obtain a plan that complied both with ?5 and with state law, the District Court interposed itself into the ?5 approval process in a way that the statute does not contemplate. Cf., e.g., Upham v. Seamon, 456 U.S. 37, 42-43 (percuriam). Pp. 10-15.

Reversed and remanded.

O’Connor, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.