Lopez v. Monterey County, 519 U.S. 9 (1996)

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OCTOBER TERM, 1996

Syllabus

LOPEZ et al. v. MONTEREY COUNTY, CALIFORNIA, et al.

appeal from the united states district court for the northern district of california

No. 95-1201. Argued October 8, 1996—Decided November 6, 1996

As a jurisdiction covered by 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, appellee

Monterey County (hereinafter County) must obtain federal preclearance—either from the Attorney General of the United States or from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia—of any voting practice different from its practices on November 1, 1968. On that date, the County had nine separate and independent inferior court districts, the judges of which were elected exclusively by their respective districts' voters. Between 1972 and 1983, the County adopted six ordinances, which ultimately merged all the districts into a single, countywide municipal court served by judges whom County residents elected at large. This consolidation took place against a backdrop of California laws, some of which governed courts generally and others of which applied to the County's courts specifically. In 1991, appellants, Hispanic voters residing in the County, sued in the District Court, alleging that the County had violated 5 by failing to obtain federal preclearance of the consolidation ordinances. The three-judge District Court ordered the County to obtain federal preclearance of the challenged ordinances. But the County did not submit the ordinances to the appropriate federal authorities. Instead, the County began to work with appellants to develop a new judicial election plan that they believed would be less retrogressive than the at-large, countywide election scheme. The State of California, as intervenor, opposed the parties' proposed plans. Ultimately, the District Court ordered the County to conduct judicial elections under an at-large, countywide election plan. In essence, four years after the filing of the complaint, the District Court ordered the County to hold elections under the very same scheme that appellants had originally challenged under 5 as unprecleared.

Held: 1. This Court leaves to the District Court to resolve on remand appellee State's threshold contentions that, although the County perhaps should have submitted the consolidation ordinances for federal preclearance before implementing them, intervening changes in California law have transformed the County's judicial election scheme into a state plan, for which 5 preclearance is not needed; that appellants' suit was barred

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