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decided*fn*: March 3, 1969.



Warren, Black, Douglas, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, Fortas, Marshall

Author: Warren

[ 393 U.S. Page 547]

 MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

These four cases, three from Mississippi and one from Virginia, involve the application of the Voting Rights Act of 1965*fn1 to state election laws and regulations. The Mississippi cases were consolidated on appeal and argued together in this Court. Because of the grounds on which we decide all four cases, the appeal in the Virginia case is also disposed of by this opinion.*fn2

[ 393 U.S. Page 548]

     In South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (1966), we held the provisions of the Act involved in these cases to be constitutional. These cases merely require us to determine whether the various state enactments involved are subject to the requirements of the Act.

We gave detailed treatment to the history and purposes of the Voting Rights Act in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, supra. Briefly, the Act implemented Congress' firm intention to rid the country of racial discrimination in voting. It provided stringent new remedies against those practices which have most frequently denied citizens the right to vote on the basis of their race. Thus, in States covered by the Act,*fn3 literacy tests and similar voting qualifications were suspended for a period of five years from the last occurrence of substantial voting discrimination. However, Congress apparently feared that the mere suspension of existing tests would not completely solve the problem, given the history some States had of simply enacting new and slightly different requirements with the same discriminatory effect.*fn4 Not underestimating the ingenuity of those bent on preventing Negroes from voting, Congress therefore enacted § 5, the focal point of these cases.

Under § 5, if a State covered by the Act passes any "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting different from that in force or effect on November 1, 1964," no person can be deprived of his right to vote "for failure to comply with" the new enactment "unless and until" the State seeks and receives a declaratory judgment in the United States District Court for the District of

[ 393 U.S. Page 549]

     Columbia that the new enactment "does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color." 79 Stat. 439, 42 U. S. C. § 1973c (1964 ed., Supp. I). See Appendix, infra.

However, § 5 does not necessitate that a covered State obtain a declaratory judgment action before it can enforce any change in its election laws. It provides that a State may enforce a new enactment if the State submits the new provision to the Attorney General of the United States and, within 60 days of the submission, the Attorney General does not formally object to the new statute or regulation. The Attorney General does not act as a court in approving or disapproving the state legislation. If the Attorney General objects to the new enactment, the State may still enforce the legislation upon securing a declaratory judgment in the District Court for the District of Columbia. Also, the State is not required to first submit the new enactment to the Attorney General as it may go directly to the District Court for the District of Columbia. The provision for submission to the Attorney General merely gives the covered State a rapid method of rendering a new state election law enforceable.*fn5 Once the State has successfully complied with the § 5 approval requirements, private parties may enjoin the enforcement of the new enactment only in traditional

[ 393 U.S. Page 550]

     suits attacking its constitutionality; there is no further remedy provided by § 5.

In these four cases, the States have passed new laws or issued new regulations. The central issue is whether these provisions fall within the prohibition of § 5 that prevents the enforcement of "any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting" unless the State first complies with one of the section's approval procedures.

No. 25, Fairley v. Patterson , involves a 1966 amendment to § 2870 of the Mississippi Code of 1942.*fn6 The amendment provides that the board of supervisors of each county may adopt an order providing that board members be elected at large by all qualified electors of the county. Prior to the 1966 amendment, all counties by law were divided into five districts; each district elected one member of the board of supervisors. After the amendment, Adams and Forrest Counties adopted the authorized orders, specifying that each candidate must run at large, but also requiring that each candidate be a resident of the county district he seeks to represent.

The appellants are qualified electors and potential candidates in the two counties. They sought a declaratory judgment in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi that the amendment to § 2870 was subject to the provisions of § 5 of the Act and hence could not be enforced until the State complied with the approval requirements of § 5.*fn7

No. 26, Bunton v. Patterson, concerns a 1966 amendment to § 6271-08 of the Mississippi Code.*fn8 The amendment

[ 393 U.S. Page 551]

     provides that in 11 specified counties, the county superintendent of education shall be appointed by the board of education. Before the enactment of this amendment, all these counties had the option of electing or appointing the superintendent. Appellants are qualified electors and potential candidates for the position of county superintendent of education in three of the counties covered by the 1966 amendment. They sought a declaratory judgment that the amendment was subject to § 5, and thus unenforceable unless the State complied with the § 5 approval requirements.

No. 36, Whitley v. Williams, involves a 1966 amendment to § 3260 of the Mississippi Code, which changed the requirements for independent candidates running in general elections.*fn9 The amendment makes four revisions: (1) it establishes a new rule that no person who has voted in a primary election may thereafter be placed on the ballot as an independent candidate in the general election; (2) the time for filing a petition as an independent candidate is changed to 60 days before the primary election from the previous 40 days before the general election; (3) the number of signatures of qualified electors needed for the independent qualifying petition is increased substantially; and (4) a new provision is added that each qualified elector who signs the independent qualifying petition must personally sign the petition and must include his polling precinct and county. Appellants are potential candidates whose nominating petitions for independent listing on the ballot were rejected for failure to comply with one or more of the amended provisions.*fn10

[ 393 U.S. Page 552]

     In all three of these cases, the three-judge District Court ruled that the amendments to the Mississippi Code did not come within the purview of and are not covered by § 5, and dismissed the complaints.*fn11 Appellants brought direct appeals to this Court.*fn12 We consolidated the cases and postponed consideration of jurisdiction to a hearing on the merits. 392 U.S. 902 (1968).

No. 3, Allen v. State Board of Elections, concerns a bulletin issued by the Virginia Board of Elections to all election judges. The bulletin was an attempt to modify the provisions of § 24-252 of the Code of Virginia of 1950 which provides, inter alia, that "any voter [may] place on the official ballot the name of any person in his own handwriting . . . . "*fn13 The Virginia Code (§ 24-251) further provides that voters with a physical incapacity may be assisted in preparing their ballots. For example, one who is blind may be aided in the preparation of his ballot by a person of his choice. Those unable to mark their ballots due to any other physical disability may be assisted by one of the election judges. However, no statutory provision is made for assistance to those who wish to write in a name, but who are unable to do so because of illiteracy. When Virginia was brought under the coverage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Virginia election officials apparently thought that the provision in § 24-252, requiring a voter to cast a write-in vote in the voter's own handwriting, was incompatible with the provisions of § 4 (a) of the Act suspending the

[ 393 U.S. Page 553]

     enforcement of any test or device as a prerequisite to voting.*fn14 Therefore, the Board of Elections issued a bulletin to all election judges, instructing that the election judge could aid any qualified voter in the preparation of his ballot, if the voter so requests and if the voter is unable to mark his ballot due to illiteracy.*fn15

Appellants are functionally illiterate registered voters from the Fourth Congressional District of Virginia. They brought a declaratory judgment action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, claiming that § 24-252 and the modifying bulletin violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A three-judge court was convened and the complaint dismissed.*fn16 A direct appeal was brought to this Court and we postponed consideration of jurisdiction to a hearing on the merits. 392 U.S. 902 (1968).

In the 1966 elections, appellants attempted to vote for a write-in candidate by sticking labels, printed with the name of their candidate, on the ballot. The election officials refused to count appellants' ballots, claiming that the Virginia election law did not authorize marking ballots with labels. As the election outcome would not have been changed had the disputed ballots been counted, appellants sought only prospective relief. In the District Court, appellants did not assert that § 5 precluded enforcement

[ 393 U.S. Page 554]

     of the procedure prescribed by the bulletin. Rather, they argued § 4 suspended altogether the requirement of § 24-252 that the voter write the name of his choice in the voter's own handwriting. Appellants first raised the applicability of § 5 in their jurisdictional statement filed with this Court. We are not precluded from considering the applicability of § 5, however. The Virginia legislation was generally attacked on the ground that it was inconsistent with the Voting Rights Act. Where all the facts are undisputed, this Court may, in the interests of judicial economy, determine the applicability of the provisions of that Act, even though some specific sections were not argued below.*fn17

We postponed consideration of our jurisdiction in these cases to a hearing on the merits. Therefore, before reaching the merits, we first determine whether these cases are properly before us on direct appeal from the district courts.


These suits were instituted by private citizens; an initial question is whether private litigants may invoke the jurisdiction of the district courts to obtain the relief requested in these suits. 28 U. S. C. § 1343 provides: "The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action authorized by law to be commenced by any person: . . . (4) To recover damages or to secure equitable or other relief under any Act of Congress providing for the protection of civil rights, including the right to vote." Clearly, if § 5 authorizes appellants to secure the relief sought, the district courts had jurisdiction over these suits.

The Voting Rights Act does not explicitly grant or deny private parties authorization to seek a declaratory judgment

[ 393 U.S. Page 555]

     that a State has failed to comply with the provisions of the Act.*fn18 However, § 5 does provide that "no person shall be denied the right to vote for failure to comply with [a new state enactment covered by, but not approved under, § 5]." Analysis of this language in light of the major purpose of the Act indicates that appellants may seek a declaratory judgment that a new state enactment is governed by § 5. Further, after proving that the State has failed to submit the covered enactment for § 5 approval, the private party has standing to obtain an injunction against further enforcement, pending the State's submission of the legislation pursuant to § 5.*fn19

[ 393 U.S. Page 556]

     The Act was drafted to make the guarantees of the Fifteenth Amendment finally a reality for all citizens. South Carolina v. Katzenbach, supra, at 308, 309. Congress realized that existing remedies were inadequate to accomplish this purpose and drafted an unusual, and in some aspects a severe, procedure for insuring that States would not discriminate on the basis of race in the enforcement of their voting laws.*fn20

The achievement of the Act's laudable goal could be severely hampered, however, if each citizen were required to depend solely on litigation instituted at the discretion of the Attorney General.*fn21 For example, the provisions of the Act extend to States and the subdivisions thereof. The Attorney General has a limited staff and often might be unable to uncover quickly new regulations and enactments passed at the varying levels of state government.*fn22

[ 393 U.S. Page 557]

     It is consistent with the broad purpose of the Act to allow the individual citizen standing to insure that his city or county government complies with the § 5 approval requirements.

We have previously held that a federal statute passed to protect a class of citizens, although not specifically authorizing members of the protected class to institute suit, nevertheless implied a private right of action. In J. I. Case Co. v. Borak, 377 U.S. 426 (1964), we were called upon to consider § 14 (a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. 48 Stat. 895, 15 U. S. C. § 78n (a). That section provides that it shall be "unlawful for any person . . . [to violate] such rules and regulations as the Commission may prescribe as necessary or appropriate in the public interest or for the protection of investors." We held that "while this language makes no specific reference to a private right of action, among its chief purposes is 'the protection of investors,' which certainly implies the availability of judicial relief where necessary to achieve that result." 377 U.S., at 432.

A similar analysis is applicable here. The guarantee of § 5 that no person shall be denied the right to vote for failure to comply with an unapproved new enactment subject to § 5, might well prove an empty promise unless the private citizen were allowed to seek judicial enforcement of the prohibition.*fn23


Another question involving the jurisdiction of the district courts is presented by § 14 (b) of the Act. It provides that "no court other than the District Court

[ 393 U.S. Page 558]

     for the District of Columbia . . . shall have jurisdiction to issue any declaratory judgment pursuant to [§ 5] or any restraining order or temporary or permanent injunction against the execution or enforcement of any provision of this Act . . . ." 79 Stat. 445, 42 U. S. C. § 1973 l (b) (1964 ed., Supp. I). The appellants sought declaratory judgments that the state enactments were subject to § 5 of the Act; appellees thus argue that these actions could be initiated only in the District Court for the District of Columbia.

Section 14 (b) must be read with the Act's other enforcement provisions. Section 12 (f) provides that the district courts shall have jurisdiction over actions brought pursuant to § 12 (d) to enjoin a person from acting when "there are reasonable grounds to believe that [such person] is about to engage in any act or practice prohibited by [§ 5]."*fn24 These § 12 (f) injunctive actions are distinguishable from the actions mentioned in § 14 (b). The § 14 (b) injunctive action is one aimed at prohibiting enforcement of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and would involve an attack on the constitutionality of the Act itself. See Katzenbach v. Morgan, 384 U.S. 641 (1966). On the other hand, the § 12 (f) action is aimed at prohibiting the enforcement of a state enactment that is for some reason violative of the Act. Cf. United States v. Ward, 352 F.2d 329 (C. A. 5th Cir. 1965); Perez v. Rhiddlehoover, 247 F.Supp. 65 (D.C. E. D. La. 1965).

A similar distinction is possible with respect to declaratory judgments. A declaratory judgment brought by the State pursuant to § 5 requires an adjudication that a new enactment does not have the purpose or effect of racial discrimination. However, a declaratory judgment action brought by a private litigant does not require the Court to reach this difficult substantive issue. The only

[ 393 U.S. Page 559]

     issue is whether a particular state enactment is subject to the provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and therefore must be submitted for approval before enforcement. The difference in the magnitude of these two issues suggests that Congress did not intend that both can be decided only by the District of Columbia District Court. Indeed, the specific grant of jurisdiction to the district courts in § 12 (f) indicates Congress intended to treat "coverage" questions differently from "substantive discrimination" questions. See Perez v. Rhiddlehoover, supra, at 72.

Moreover, as we indicated in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, supra, the power of Congress to require suits to be brought only in the District of Columbia District Court is grounded in Congress' power, under Art. III, § 1, to "ordain and establish" inferior federal tribunals. We further noted Congress did not exceed constitutional bounds in imposing limitations on " litigation against the Federal Government. . . . " 383 U.S., at 332 (emphasis added). Of course, in declaratory judgment actions brought by private litigants, the United States will not be a party. This distinction further suggests interpreting § 14 (b) as applying only to declaratory judgment actions brought by the State.

There are strong reasons for adoption of this interpretation. Requiring that declaratory judgment actions be brought in the District of Columbia places a burden on the plaintiff. The enormity of the burden, of course, will vary with the size of the plaintiff's resources. Admittedly, it would be easier for States to bring § 5 actions in the district courts in their own States. However, the State has sufficient resources to prosecute the actions easily in the Nation's Capital; and, Congress has power to regulate which federal court shall hear suits against the Federal Government. On the other hand, the individual litigant will often not have sufficient resources

[ 393 U.S. Page 560]

     to maintain an action easily outside the district in which he resides, especially in cases where the individual litigant is attacking a local city or county regulation. Thus, for the individual litigant, the District of Columbia burden may be sufficient to preclude him from bringing suit.

We hold that the restriction of § 14 (b) does not apply to suits brought by private litigants seeking a declaratory judgment that a new state enactment is subject to the approval requirements of § 5, and that these actions may be brought in the local district court pursuant to 28 U. S. C. § 1343 (4).


A final jurisdictional question remains. These actions were all heard before three-judge district courts. We have jurisdiction over an appeal brought directly from the three-judge court only if the three-judge court was properly convened. Pennsylvania Public Utility Comm'n v. Pennsylvania R. Co., 382 U.S. 281 (1965); Zemel v. Rusk, 381 U.S. 1, 5 (1965); see 28 U. S. C. § 1253. Appellants initially claimed that the statutes and regulations in question violated the Fifteenth Amendment. However, by stipulation these claims were removed from the cases prior to a hearing in the District Court and the cases were submitted solely on the question of the applicability of § 5.*fn25 We held in Swift & Co. v. Wickham, 382 U.S. 111, 127 (1965), that a three-judge court is not required under 28 U. S. C. § 2281 if the state statute is attacked on the grounds that it is in conflict with a federal statute and consequently violates the Supremacy Clause. These suits involve such an attack

[ 393 U.S. Page 561]

     and, in the absence of a statute authorizing a three-judge court, would not be proper before a district court of three judges.

Appellants maintain that § 5 authorizes a three-judge court in suits brought by private litigants to enforce the approval requirements of the section. The final sentence of § 5 provides that "any action under this section shall be heard and determined by a court of three judges . . . and any appeal shall lie to the Supreme Court." 42 U. S. C. § 1973c (1964 ed., Supp. I) (emphasis added). Appellees argue that this sentence refers only to the action specifically mentioned in the first sentence of § 5 (i. e., declaratory judgment suits brought by the State) and does not apply to suits brought by the private litigant.

As we have interpreted § 5, suits involving the section may be brought in at least three ways. First, of course, the State may institute a declaratory judgment action. Second, an individual may bring a suit for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, claiming that a state requirement is covered by § 5, but has not been subjected to the required federal scrutiny. Third, the Attorney General may bring an injunctive action to prohibit the enforcement of a new regulation because of the State's failure to obtain approval under § 5. All these suits may be viewed as being brought "under" § 5. The issue is whether the language "under this section" should be interpreted as authorizing a three-judge action in these suits.

We have long held that congressional enactments providing for the convening of three-judge courts must be strictly construed. Phillips v. United States, 312 U.S. 246 (1941). Convening a three-judge court places a burden on our federal court system, and may often result in a delay in a matter needing swift initial adjudication. See Swift & Co. v. Wickham, supra, at 128. Also, a

[ 393 U.S. Page 562]

     direct appeal may be taken from a three-judge court to this Court, thus depriving us of the wise and often crucial adjudications of the courts of appeals. Thus we have been reluctant to extend the range of cases necessitating the convening of three-judge courts. Ibid.

However, we have not been unaware of the legitimate reasons that prompted Congress to enact three-judge-court legislation. See Swift & Co. v. Wickham, supra, at 116-119. Notwithstanding the problems for judicial administration, Congress has determined that three-judge courts are desirable in a number of circumstances involving confrontations between state and federal power or in circumstances involving a potential for substantial interference with government administration.*fn26 The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is an example. Federal supervision over the enforcement of state legislation always poses difficult problems for our federal system. The problems are especially difficult when the enforcement of state enactments may be enjoined and state election procedures suspended because the State has failed to comply with a federal approval procedure.

In drafting § 5, Congress apparently concluded that if the governing authorities of a State differ with the Attorney General of the United States concerning the purpose or effect of a change in voting procedures, it is inappropriate to have that difference resolved by a single district judge. The clash between federal and state power and the potential disruption to state government are apparent. There is no less a clash and potential ...

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