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Voketz v. Decatur

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

September 13, 2018

GARY VOKETZ, for himself and on behalf of the citizens of Decatur, Alabama, and the State of Alabama, Plaintiff - Appellant,
DECATUR, ALABAMA, CITY OF, the; a municipal corporation, CITY COUNCIL OF DECATUR, THE, DON KYLE, ROGER ANDERS, BILLY JACKSON, et al., Defendants - Appellees, AL ROBINSON, DORIS A. BAKER, DR. SAMUEL T. KING, ANNIE R. PRIEST, Intervenors Defendants - Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama D.C. Docket No. 5:14-cv-00540-AKK

          Before TJOFLAT and JULIE CARNES, Circuit Judges, and BLOOM, [*] District Judge.


         In 2010, Decatur residents passed a referendum to change Decatur's form of government, including how the city council was elected. City officials, however, decided not to implement the referendum because they believed doing so would violate § 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Gary Voketz filed this lawsuit in 2014 to compel Decatur to implement the referendum. The City and its current councilmembers again contend that they cannot do so because it would violate § 5.

         After initially denying the defendants' motion for summary judgment based on § 5, the district court reversed itself and granted summary judgment. We disagree with the court's second decision. By striking down § 4(b)'s coverage formula that defined the jurisdictions to which § 5 applies, the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529 (2013), rendered § 5 inapplicable to Decatur. Thus, § 5 does not prohibit Decatur from implementing the referendum and reforming its government now, in 2018. Accordingly, we REVERSE the district court.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         In 2009, Voketz, a Decatur resident, began circulating a petition for a referendum to change the form of government of Decatur, Alabama. Decatur had redrawn its voting districts in 2004 to comply with the Voting Rights Act. By doing so, the City freed itself from a 1988 consent decree that governed its electoral procedures. Given this new freedom, Voketz sought a referendum to change Decatur's form of government from mayor-council to council-manager.

         At the time Voketz began circulating his petition, Decatur's mayor-council government was led by a mayor elected at large and five city councilmembers elected from single-member voting districts. One of the five councilmember voting districts had a black voting-age majority.

         Voketz's referendum to change to a council-manager government would retain the five-member city council but would modify how those members were elected. Instead of all members being elected through single-member voting districts, two members would be elected at large-one of whom would serve as mayor. Ala. Code § 11-43A-8. The remaining three councilmembers would be elected by single-member districts. Id. § 11-43A-9.

         Voketz's efforts were successful, and, in 2010, the referendum passed, and the residents of Decatur elected to change to a council-manager form of government.

         Drawing new single-member districts that satisfied both federal and state law, however, put Decatur between a rock and a hard place. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required that Decatur, as a covered jurisdiction, preclear any changes to its voting laws either with the Department of Justice or by obtaining a declaratory judgment from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. 52 U.S.C. § 10304(a). Without preclearance, § 5 stipulated that covered jurisdictions like Decatur could not enact or administer any laws that would have a retrogressive effect on minority voting power-meaning that a minority population's ability to elect its preferred candidate could not be decreased. Id.; see also Reno v. Bossier Parish Sch. Bd., 520 U.S. 471, 478 (1997).

         Meanwhile, Alabama law required that Decatur's voting districts "contain[ ] as nearly an equal number of people as possible." Ala. Code § 11-43A-9. But, because of the overall population numbers and geographic spread of Decatur's black voting-age population, the only feasible way (according to the City) to comply with § 5 and preserve a majority-black voting district was to draw districts that were greatly unequal in population.

         The tension between preserving a majority-black voting district and equalizing population between the districts proved unworkable. Of the six potential district maps evaluated by the City, five had maximum population deviations between districts of 24.09% or more. To comply with Alabama's equal population requirement, Decatur adopted the sixth plan that had a population deviation of only 3.62%. The sixth map, however, required the removal of the majority-black voting district because, under that map, the district would have only a 34.96% black voting-age population.

         Nevertheless, Decatur submitted the sixth plan to the Department of Justice for preclearance under § 5 in October 2011. In December 2011, DOJ sent Decatur a "more information request." The request informed Decatur that "the information sent is insufficient to enable [DOJ] to determine" whether the new plan complied with § 5, and it asked for further documentation and data on voting behavior and election results. Faced with this request, Decatur determined ...

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