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McNeil v. Springfield Park District and Springfield School District No. 186

decided: July 8, 1988.

FRANK MCNEIL, ET AL., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS REPRESENTATIVES OF A CERTIFIED CLASS, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
SPRINGFIELD PARK DISTRICT AND SPRINGFIELD SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 186, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois, Springfield Division, Nos. 87 C 3016 & 87 C 3017--Richard Mills, Judge.

Walter J. Cummings, Richard D. Cudahy and Daniel A. Manion, Circuit Judges.

Author: Cudahy

Richard A. CUDAHY, Circuit Judge.

On January 17, 1987, the district court held that the at-large system for electing members to Springfield's city council violated section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. § 1973 (1982). McNeil v. City of Springfield, 658 F. Supp. 1015 (C.D. Ill. 1987). Plaintiffs in that case -- five black registered voters residing in Springfield -- then brought this action challenging the electoral systems for the Springfield Park District and School Board.

The park district board and school board both consist of seven members who are elected at large by a plurality vote. Appendix of Appellants at 3. No black resident has ever been elected to the park board. Five blacks have been elected to the school board since 1965, filling 9.8% of the various seats available during that time. Plaintiffs claim that the multi-member voting districts dilute their voting strength,*fn1 impairing their ability to elect candidates of their choice, and they ask the court to divide the park and school districts into seven single-member districts, one of which would have a black majority population.*fn2

The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants, 666 F. Supp. 1208, holding that the plaintiffs failed to satisfy the "necessary preconditions" established by the Supreme Court in Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 106 S. Ct. 2752, 92 L. Ed. 2d 25 (1986), which construed the 1982 amendments to section 2.*fn3 Gingles, like this case, involved a challenge to an at-large, or multi-member, district voting scheme. There the Court held that, in order to sustain a section 2 claim, a minority group must "demonstrate that it is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district." 106 S. Ct. at 2766. If it is unable to satisfy this precondition, a minority group cannot sustain its claim that the multi-member voting scheme "operates to impair minority voters' ability to elect representatives of their choice." Id. Applying that test in this case, the district court granted summary judgment on the ground that appellants would not comprise a voting age majority in the proposed single-member district.

Appellants attack the district court's holding on several fronts, some of which involve the merit of Gingles itself. Appellants primarily contend that summary judgment is inappropriate in section 2 voting rights cases, because the statute requires courts to take a "functional" view of the challenged process and evaluate the "totality of the circumstances." Appellants also contend that Gingles ' population requirement should not apply here because that case involved a district with a majority vote requirement, while a candidate in the districts at issue here may prevail with a plurality of the vote. Alternatively, appellants maintain that, if Gingles ' precondition warrants consideration of a motion for summary judgment, the district court erred in interpreting the precondition to require that appellants comprise a voting age majority (in contrast to a total population majority) in their proposed single-member district. Further, they argue that population growth since the 1980 census has produced a black voting age majority in the single-member district. Finally, appellants make two other arguments: first, that the court should add seats to the school and park district boards to enable blacks to comprise a voting age majority in a smaller district; second, that they should be allowed to show that the multi-member scheme impairs their ability to influence elections even though they cannot show that the scheme impairs their ability to elect candidates of their choice.

I.

Appellants' strongest argument is that summary judgment is inappropriate in section 2 cases, which generally call for substantial and complex factual determinations. This argument finds support in the text and legislative history of section 2 and in Supreme Court precedent. Indeed, both Congress and the Court have indicated that section 2 cases require consideration of the "totality of the circumstances." See 42 U.S.C. § 1973(b); Gingles, 106 S. Ct. at 2764, 2781; White v. Regester, 412 U.S. 755, 769, 37 L. Ed. 2d 314, 93 S. Ct. 2332 (1973). Congress, in amending section 2, expressed its preference for "a searching practical evaluation of the 'past and present reality,'" and a "functional view of the political process." S. Rep. No. 417, 97th Cong., 2d Sess., pt. 1, at 30 & n.120 [hereinafter Report], reprinted in 1982 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News 177, 208 (quoting White, 412 U.S. at 769-70). Congress wanted "to restore the legal standard that governed voting rights discrimination cases prior to the Supreme Court's decision" in City of Mobile v. Bolden, 446 U.S. 55, 64 L. Ed. 2d 47, 100 S. Ct. 1490 (1980), which broke with precedent by requiring plaintiffs to prove discriminatory purpose to sustain their claim. Report at 16, reprinted in 1982 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News at 192-93. The amendment to section 2 removed the intent requirement and returned to the "results" test that had been in effect before Bolden. 42 U.S.C. § 1973(b); see White, 412 U.S. at 765-66.

Prior to Bolden, plaintiffs could prevail by showing that a challenged election practice or procedure, under the totality of the circumstances, operated to minimize or cancel out the voting strength of a racial group. White, 412 U.S. at 765-66; Whitcomb v. Chavis, 403 U.S. 124, 149, 29 L. Ed. 2d 363, 91 S. Ct. 1858 (1971); Burns v. Richardson, 384 U.S. 73, 88, 16 L. Ed. 2d 376, 86 S. Ct. 1286 (1966); Fortson v. Dorsey, 379 U.S. 433, 439, 13 L. Ed. 2d 401, 85 S. Ct. 498 (1965). No discriminatory intent was required. Courts considered a variety of factors in appraising the impact of the challenged practice. White, 412 U.S. at 766-67; Zimmer v. McKeithen, 485 F.2d 1297, 1306-07 (5th Cir. 1973) (en banc), aff'd sub nom. East Carroll Parish School Bd. v. Marshall, 424 U.S. 636, 47 L. Ed. 2d 296, 96 S. Ct. 1083 (1976) (per curiam).*fn4

In amending section 2, Congress instructed future courts to consider these factors in their determinations of section 2 claims. Report at 28-29, reprinted in 1982 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News at 206-07. These factors help define the totality of the circumstances from which courts decide whether a particular scheme minimizes or cancels out minority voting strength. Id. at 29 n. 118, reprinted in 1982 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News at 207 n. 118. Admittedly, factors other than those listed are probative of section 2 claims, but it may be worth noting that none of the enumerated factors describes the requirement that a minority group be sufficiently large and geographically cohesive to constitute a majority in a single-member district. Neither White nor Zimmer, the principal cases expressing the standard Congress meant to codify, mentions such a requirement.*fn5 In the absence of Gingles, appellants might have good reason to claim that summary judgment based on minority population size and concentration is improper in section 2 cases.

Despite its merits, however, appellants' contention ultimately fails in light of Thornburg v. Gingles. Gingles involved a challenge to a multi-member district scheme for electing representatives to the North Carolina legislature. 106 S. Ct. at 2758. Registered black voters alleged that multi-member districts impaired their ability to elect representatives of their choice. Id. The district court applied the "totality of circumstances" test and, relying on the various factors considered in White and Zimmer, concluded that the multi-member districts violated section 2. Gingles v. Edmisten, 590 F. Supp. 345 (E.D.N.C. 1984) (three judge panel), aff'd in part and rev'd in part sub nom. Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 92 L. Ed. 2d 25, 106 S. Ct. 2752 (1986). After noting that blacks were "sufficient in numbers and contiguity to constitute effective voting majorities in single-member districts," id. at 358, the court found that North Carolina had officially discriminated against blacks with respect to their right to vote; that blacks had suffered historically from discrimination in education, housing, employment and health services; that North Carolina maintained a majority vote requirement; that white candidates had encouraged voting along color lines by appealing to racial prejudice; that very few blacks had ever held public office in the state; and that voting in the challenged districts was racially polarized. Id. at 359-72.

On direct appeal, the Supreme Court did not simply affirm the lower court; instead, it reworked the standard for section 2 cases. While agreeing that many or all of the White/Zimmer factors are relevant to a claim that multi-member districts violate section 2, the Court established three "necessary preconditions" that have to be met before such claims receive full consideration. Gingles, 106 S. Ct. at 2766. To pass the summary judgment threshold, a minority group "must be able to demonstrate that it is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district." Id. The group must also show that it is politically cohesive and that white bloc voting usually thwarts election of the minority's preferred candidate.*fn6 Only upon satisfaction of these threshold criteria should a court conduct its totality-of-the-circumstances analysis and consider other relevant factors set forth in White. As the Court explained, "Unless minority voters possess the potential to elect representatives in the absence of the challenged structure or practice, they cannot claim to have been injured by that structure or practice." Id. at 2766-67 n. 17 (emphasis in original). Thus, although a section 2 claim potentially implicates many factors, the Court stated in no uncertain terms that a challenge to a multi-member district cannot be sustained unless the Gingles preconditions are met. We must therefore reject appellants' contention that summary judgment is improper in section 2 cases.

At least at first glance, a tension seems to exist between the Court's approach toward voting rights claims and Congress's intent in amending section 2. The Court's preconditions are not among the White/Zimmer factors that Congress adopted to assist courts in their section 2 analyses. In fashioning a clear regime for a prima facie section 2 case, Gingles precludes some small and unconcentrated minority groups from attempting to rectify vote dilution even though they have "less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice." 42 U.S.C. § 1973(b). For instance, minorities not large and concentrated enough to comprise a majority in a single-member district and therefore unable to sustain a section 2 claim under Gingles may nonetheless "possess the potential" to elect candidates of their choice in a single-member district with the help of a sizeable and long-standing white cross-over vote.*fn7

However, given the lack of clarity with respect to the requirements for a section 2 violation, as well as the broad latitude often granted to courts having to consider the totality of the circumstances, Gingles is a reasonable exercise of the Court's authority in statutory interpretation. The Court's approach, by focusing up front on whether there is an effective remedy for the claimed injury, promotes ease of application without distorting the statute or the intent underlying it. It reins in the almost unbridled discretion that section 2 gives the courts, focusing the inquiry so that plaintiffs with promising claims can develop a full record. The creation of preconditions -- a choice of clear rules over muddy efforts to discern equity -- shields the courts from meritless claims and ensures that clearly meritorious claims will survive summary judgment. That might not always have been true had courts been allowed to consider all of the White/Zimmer factors at the early stages of the proceedings. Thus, although in this case the Gingles criteria might conceivably foreclose a meritorious claim, in general they will ensure that violations for which an effective remedy exists will be considered while appropriately closing the courthouse to marginal cases. In making that trade-off, the Gingles majority justifiably sacrificed some claims ...


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