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Mobile v. Bolden


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446 U.S. 55 (1980), argued 19 Mar. 1979, reargued 29 Oct. 1979, decided 22 Apr. 1980 by vote of 6 to 3; Stewart for the Court, Blackmun concurring in the result, Stevens concurring in the judgment, Brennan, White, and Marshall in dissent. This case was brought on behalf of the black residents of Mobile, Alabama. They alleged that the all-white Mobile City Commission, elected at large, diluted the voting strength of blacks in violation of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. No black had ever served on the five-member commission since its inception in 1911. The district court found constitutional violations and the court of appeals affirmed. In the Supreme Court the United States argued for the black parties.

The plurality opinion focused on the standard necessary to make out a claim of racial discrimination under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments where state action, on its face, is racially neutral. Examining the Fifteenth Amendment and reviewing numerous voting rights cases, the Court rejected a discriminatory result standard and concluded that a showing of a discriminatory purpose was required. Similarly, the Court relied on Washington v. Davis (1976), Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp. (1977), and Personnel Administrator v. Feeney (1979) for the proposition that a showing of discriminatory intent was necessary under the Fourteenth Amendment. Applying this discriminatory intent standard to Mobile, the Court found no constitutional violation. Mobile's black citizens could register and vote without hindrance, and there were not official obstacles hindering blacks in seeking elective office. Finally, the Court strongly criticized the notion that the Fourteenth Amendment requires or guarantees proportional representation.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, in a lengthy and angry dissent, labeled the Court an accessory to the perpetuation of racial discrimination. He rejected the necessity of finding a discriminatory intent and argued for a discriminatory effects test.

Critics of the decision maintain that the Court's discriminatory purpose test is too burdensome. Mobile caused a firestorm of protest. Congress, in its 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act, incorporated a modified effects test into the act.

Gerald N. Rosenberg

Subjects: Law.


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