Holder v. Hall

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512 U.S. 874 (1994), argued 4 Oct. 1993, decided 30 June 1994 by vote of 5 to 4; Kennedy announced the Court's judgment, writing for himself and Rehnquist and for O’Connor in part, O’Connor and Thomas concurring, Blackmun, Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg in dissent. Black voters of Georgia's Bleckley County brought suit challenging the county's single-member commission form of government as a violation of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits any “standard, practice, or procedure” that abridges voting rights on the basis of race. The plaintiffs argued that their voting rights were diluted because black voters had sufficient numbers to constitute a majority in one district if the commission consisted of five members elected from separate districts, as permitted by Georgia law. Under the existing system, with a single commissioner chosen by an at-large election, black voters were unable to elect their preferred candidate. The Court rejected the plaintiffs’ claim, with the five members of the majority offering three different rationales for the judgment.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, found that the vote dilution challenge to the size of the commission under section 2 was unpersuasive because, under section 2, courts lack “a reasonable alternative practice” to use as a benchmark for evaluating the single-member structure (p. 880). Joined only by Rehnquist, Kennedy also rejected a rule that a practice covered by the preclearance requirement of section 5 of the act, which mandates federal approval of certain changes in voting practices, must also be covered by section 2. In her concurring opinion, Justice O’Connor disagreed. She read the texts of sections 2 and 5 to have “parallel scope” (p. 887) in determining coverage and therefore concluded, based on section 5 precedent, that the plaintiffs’ claim implicated a “standard, practice, or procedure” under section 2 (p. 886). She nonetheless concurred in the judgment, based solely on the lack of a viable benchmark.

Holder is frequently noted for Justice Clarence Thomas's sweeping opinion, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, concurring only in the judgment and calling for a major revision of the Court's voting rights jurisprudence. Thomas characterized the current interpretation of section 2 as “a disastrous misadventure in judicial policymaking” (p. 893) that has permitted courts to decide questions of political theory by favoring single-member districts that separate voters by race and thus heighten racial tensions. Turning to the text of section 2, he argued that the Court's precedents holding it applicable to vote dilution cases were erroneous; properly read, section 2 should protect only an individual voter's access to the ballot and not a minority group's right to influence election results.

The dissent took strong exception to the Thomas concurrence. Justice Harry A. Blackmun, writing for all four dissenters, insisted that both history and precedent support a broad reading of section 2 in order to implement its remedial purpose of eliminating racial discrimination from the election process. Blackmun also found no difficulty in identifying a five-member commission as a reasonable benchmark for measuring vote dilution. Justice John Paul Stevens's separate opinion for the same four justices rejected Thomas's narrow reading of section 2 as a “radical reinterpretation” that violated stare decisis.


Subjects: Law.

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