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Missouri State Conference of National Association v. Ferguson-Florissant School District

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 3, 2018

Missouri State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Redditt Hudson; F. Willis Johnson; Doris Bailey Plaintiffs - Appellees
v.
Ferguson-Florissant School District Defendant-Appellant St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners Defendant Missouri School Boards' Association Amicus on Behalf of Appellant(s)

          Submitted: December 13, 2017

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, ARNOLD and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          KELLY, Circuit Judge.

         The Missouri State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the other named plaintiffs (together, the NAACP) sued the Ferguson-Florissant School District (FFSD, or the district) for vote dilution under section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), 52 U.S.C § 10301. After a bench trial, the district court[1] found that (1) the NAACP had proved the preconditions for a section 2 claim, and (2) the totality of the circumstances indicated that the district's black voters had less opportunity to elect their preferred candidate than other members of the electorate. FFSD appeals both determinations.

         I.

         We begin with the underlying facts of the case, the legal framework applicable to section 2 vote dilution claims, and the proceedings below.

         a. Facts

         FFSD is a school district located in northern St. Louis County, Missouri. It was created after a 1975 desegregation order required the original FFSD to annex two neighboring school districts "to achieve a meaningful desegregation" within one unified district. United States v. Missouri, 515 F.2d 1365, 1366 (8th Cir. 1975) (en banc). It includes all or part of eleven municipalities, and is governed by a seven-member school board. Each member is elected "at-large" by the popular vote of the entire district. Members of the FFSD board serve three-year terms with two or three seats filled by an election every April.

         Voting in FFSD board elections works as follows. Assume there are three seats to be filled in a given election. All of the candidates are listed on a single ballot. Each voter gets three votes, one for each seat, and can cast those three votes for any three candidates, but cannot vote for any candidate more than once. The top three vote-getters assume seats on the board. In a two-seat year, the same procedures are followed with two votes rather than three. The only time this procedure is not followed is when the election is uncontested (i.e., there are the same number of candidates as there are available seats). In that circumstance, the candidates simply assume the positions on the board and the election is cancelled.

         b. Legal Framework

         Section 2 of the VRA protects against the "denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color" in any election held by a "State or a political subdivision." Section 2 claims are "established if, based on the totality of circumstances," it is shown that members of a racial minority group "have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice." One manner in which a violation may occur is when districts that elect several at-large representatives "operate to impair blacks' ability to elect representatives of their choice." Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 42 (1986). Such a circumstance gives rise to a "claim of vote dilution." Id.; see also Buckanaga v. Sisseton Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 54-5, S.D., 804 F.2d 469, 471 (8th Cir. 1986) ("The legislative history of the 1982 amendment to § 2 indicates that it was aimed particularly at discriminatory at-large election systems which dilute minority voting strength.").

         There are two steps to proving a section 2 vote dilution claim: (1) satisfying the so-called "Gingles preconditions," and (2) showing the violation based on a totality of the circumstances. In the first step, plaintiffs are required to prove three preconditions by a preponderance of the evidence:

(1) The racial group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district; (2) the racial group is politically cohesive; and (3) the majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it to usually defeat the minority's preferred candidate.

Bone Shirt v. Hazeltime, 461 F.3d 1011, 1018 (8th Cir. 2006) (cleaned up) (quoting League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Perry (LULAC), 548 U.S. 399, 425 (2006)). Satisfying these three preconditions "carries a plaintiff a long way towards showing a Section 2 violation," but does not suffice. Harvell v. Blytheville Sch. Dist. No. 5, 71 F.3d 1382, 1390 (8th Cir. 1995) (en banc).

         In the second step, "the statutory test directs us to consider the 'totality of the circumstances' to determine whether members of a racial group have less opportunity than do other members of the electorate." LULAC, 548 U.S. at 425-26. The Supreme Court has further instructed that, in applying this standard, we are to consider a list of factors that were included in the Senate Report on the 1982 amendments to the VRA. Id. at 426. These factors are:

(1) "the history of voting-related discrimination in the State or political subdivision;"
(2) "the extent to which voting in the elections of that State or political subdivision is racially polarized;"
(3) "the extent to which the State or political subdivision has used voting practices or procedures that tend to enhance the opportunity for discrimination against the minority group, such as unusually large election districts, majority vote requirements, and prohibitions against bullet voting;"
(4)"the exclusion of members of the minority group from candidate slating processes;"
(5) "the extent to which minority group members bear the effects of past discrimination in areas such as education, employment, and health, which hinder their ability to participate effectively in the political process;"
(6)"the use of overt or subtle racial appeals in political campaigns;"
(7)"the extent to which members of the minority group have been elected to public office in the jurisdiction;"
(8)the extent to which "elected officials are unresponsive to the particularized needs of the members of the minority group;" and
(9)whether "the policy underlying the State's or political subdivision's use of the contested practice or structure is tenuous."

Gingles, 478 U.S. at 44-45; see also LULAC, 548 U.S. at 426; Bone Shirt, 461 F.3d at 1021-22. The Senate Report also "stresses . . . this list of typical factors is neither comprehensive nor exclusive." Gingles, 478 U.S. at 45.

         c. Proceedings Below

         The NAACP sued FFSD and the St. Louis County Board of Elections, alleging that FFSD's at-large elections violated section 2 of the VRA because the elections-along with the historical and socioeconomic realities present in the district-denied black residents a meaningful opportunity ...


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