5th Cir: Intervening Voter has Standing to Challenge Modification of Consent Decree

In a case brought under the Voting Rights Act, the Fifth Circuit held that a registered voter has standing to challenge a modification to the election system for city council members. The Fifth Circuit went on to reverse the district court’s modification of the consent decree. In its remand order, the Fifth Circuit instructed the district court to determine whether the current election system dilutes the votes of Mexican-Americans and other minority groups. League of United Latin Am. Citizens, Dist. 19 v. City of Boerne, No. 10-50290, 2011 WL 4471037 (5th Cir. Sept. 28, 2011). Judge Dennis, a Clinton nominee, wrote the opinion, joined by Judge Barksdale (George H.W. Bush) and Judge Haynes (George W. Bush).

In 1996, the League of United Latin American Citizens, District 19 (“LULAC”) filed a lawsuit against the city of Boerne, Texas, for alleged violations of the Voting Rights Act. In the lawsuit, LULAC alleged that Boerne’s at-large, numbered-post election system violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it diluted the vote of Mexican-Americans and other minority groups. The same year, LULAC and the city of Boerne (“City”) entered into a settlement agreement, which was entered as a consent decree by the district court. Under the agreement, Boerne city council members would be elected through at-large elections with cumulative voting.

In 2009, the district court granted a joint motion by LULAC and the City to reopen the case and modify the consent decree, although the district court provided no specific reasons for doing so. The consent decree was modified by changing the election system to a single-member-district system. According to their joint motion, LULAC and the City modified the election system because they believed that the cumulative voting system failed to improve the voting strength of minority candidates, and that a single-member-district system would succeed where the old system failed. Shortly after the district court granted the motion, the City sought preclearance for the proposed change from the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”). The DOJ ultimately granted the City preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Less than a month after the modification, Michael R. Morton, a resident and registered voter in Boerne, filed a motion to intervene. Morton sought to oppose the modified consent decree. The district court denied the motion after concluding that Morton lacked standing to challenge the modification. The district court later granted the City’s and LULAC’s joint motion to dismiss Morton’s case. Having already filed an interlocutory appeal from the denial of his motion to intervene, Morton further appealed the district court’s dismissal of his case. The Fifth Circuit consolidated the two appeals.

In its opinion, the Fifth Circuit first addressed Morton’s standing. Disagreeing with the district court, the Fifth Circuit concluded that Morton was able to fulfill the injury-in-fact requirement because the modification deprived Morton of his right under the Boerne city charter to vote for all of the members of the city council. Under the modified system, Morton was only able to vote for the member of the city council who resides in his district. The court found legal support for this conclusion in a similar case where the Fifth Circuit, sitting en banc, held that the deprivation of a similar pre-existing voting right fulfilled Article III’s standing requirement. See League of United Latin Am. Citizens, Council No. 4434 v. Clements, 999 F.2d 831 (5th Cir. 1993). Moving on to the other standing requirements, the court also held that Morton’s injury was directly caused by the modification of the consent decree, and that his injury could be redressed by  reversing the modification of the consent decree.

Next, the court addressed the City’s suggestion that the case is moot because the DOJ, acting pursuant to its powers under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, might refuse to preclear a change back to the old system, which would preclude Morton from obtaining effective relief. The court dismissed this argument because, under Riley v. Kennedy, 553 U.S. 406 (2008), the City would not be required to get preclearance from the DOJ to return to the cumulative voting system in the event that the modification is later determined to be invalid.

After concluding that there was not an Article III barrier to Morton’s motion to intervene, the court determined that the intervention was proper under Rule 24(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Addressing all four requirements under Rule 24(a)(2), the court first concluded that Morton’s motion to intervene was timely. Second, the court concluded that Morton has an interest relating to the subject of the action, since his right to vote for all five members of the city council is at stake. Third, the court concluded that the action may preclude Morton from protecting his right to vote for all five members of the city council. Finally, the court concluded that Morton’s interest in protecting his right to vote for all five members would be inadequately represented by LULAC and the City, since, after all, they oppose the relief that he is seeking.

The court next addressed the district court’s modification of the consent decree. After explaining that the Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit have held that federal courts have inherent equitable power to modify consent decrees, the court concluded that the district court in this case had the power to modify the consent decree. See United States v. Swift & Co., 286 U.S. 106 (1932).

While courts have inherent power to modify their decrees, the Fifth Circuit explained that the modification must be warranted. To determine whether a modification is warranted, two conditions must be met: (1) the party seeking modification must show that “a significant change either in factual conditions or in law” makes compliance with the decree difficult, impossible, or detrimental to the public interest, and (2) the court must determine that the proposed modification is adequate given the change in circumstances. See Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail, 502 U.S. 367, 383-84 (1992). Turning to the facts of the case, the court noted that the only allegation offered by the parties in support of the modification was “that since the decree was entered there had been only one minority candidate to run for city council, and that this candidate won one contested election, won two uncontested elections, and then lost one contested election.” According to the court, even if these allegations were shown to be true, they are insufficient to show that the original decree failed to achieve its purpose. The court reasoned that:

This information did not provide the district court with a sufficient basis for finding that minority voters supported this candidate in her losing election, that voter dilution caused her loss, or that minority voter dilution was preventing other minority-preferred candidates from being elected. The evidence does not show which candidates the protected class tended to support in other elections or what the outcomes of those elections were. Nor did the record show that minority-preferred candidates did not run for office because they believed that under the current cumulative voting scheme they had no chance of winning.

Based on this reasoning, the court concluded that the district court abused its discretion in modifying the consent decree, and remanded to the district court to decide, based on a more developed record, whether the consent decree is appropriate.

–Scott Herrig, University of California, Berkeley-School of Law 2012

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