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U.S. Supreme Court

Houston Lawyers' Ass'n v. Attorney Gen., 501 U.S. 419 (1991)

Houston Lawyers' Association v. Attorney General of Texas

Nos. 90-813, 90-974

Argued April 22, 1991

Decided June 20, 1991

501 U.S. 419


Texas district courts are the State's trial courts of general jurisdiction. Their judges are elected from electoral districts consisting of one or more entire counties. The number of judges in each district varies, but each is elected by voters in the district in which he or she sits, pursuant to an at-large, district-wide scheme, and must be a resident of that district. Although several judicial candidates in the same district may be running in the same election, each runs for a separately numbered position. In the primary, the winner must receive a majority of votes, but in the general election, the candidate with the highest number of votes for a particular numbered position is elected. Petitioners in No. 90974, local chapters of the League of United Latin American Citizens -- an organization composed of Mexican-American and African-American Texas residents and others -- filed suit in the District Court against respondents, the State Attorney General and other officials, alleging that the electoral scheme in 10 counties diluted the voting strength of African-American and Hispanic voters in violation of, inter alia, § 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Petitioners in No. 90-81 -- the Houston Lawyers' Association, an organization of African-American attorneys registered to vote in one of the 10 counties, and others -- intervened in support of the original plaintiffs. The District Court ruled in petitioners' favor and granted interim relief for the 1990 election. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that judicial elections are not covered by § 2. A separate opinion concurring in the judgment agreed that elections for single-member offices, such as the district judgeships, are exempt from § 2. According to that opinion, a district court judge, unlike an appellate judge who acts as a member of a collegial body, is a single-office holder who has jurisdiction that is coextensive with the geographic area from which he or she is elected, and has authority to render final decisions independently of other judges serving in the same area or on the same court. The concurrence concluded that exemption from § 2 of elections for district judges is justified, chanrobles.com-redchanrobles.com-red

Page 501 U. S. 420

given the State's compelling interest in linking jurisdiction and elective base for judges acting alone, and given the risk that attempting to break that linkage might lessen minority influence by making only a few judges principally accountable to the minority electorate, rather than making all of them partly accountable to minority voters.

Held: The Act's coverage encompasses the election of executive officers and trial judges whose responsibilities are exercised independently in an area coextensive with the districts from which they are elected. Once a State decides to elect its trial judges, those elections must be conducted in compliance with the Act, since judicial elections are not categorically excluded from coverage. Chisom v. Roemer, ante, p. 501 U. S. 380. The state interest expressed in the concurring opinion below does not justify excluding single-member offices from § 2's coverage. Rather, it is a legitimate factor to be considered by courts in determining whether, based on the "totality of circumstances," a vote dilution violation has occurred or may be remedied. Pp. 501 U. S. 425-429.

914 F.2d 620 (CA5 1990), reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and KENNEDY, J., joined, post, p. 501 U. S. 428. chanrobles.com-redchanrobles.com-red

Page 501 U. S. 421


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