Pleasant Grove v. United States

479 U. S. 462

January 21, 1987

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) required the Justice Department to approve any action taken by an Alabama community that affected voting rights. Precedent made clear that the addition of new land to the city limits, whether inhabited or uninhabited, constituted such an action, because of the potential for new voters to be added to rolls. The VRA also required Alabama communities to bear the burden of proof in showing that land acquisition did not have the purpose or effect of abridging voting rights on the basis of race.

Pleasant Grove, Alabama somehow survived into the 1980s without a single nonwhite registered voter. The Justice Department refused to preclear two additions to the city limits. One was uninhabited, and the second contained just one white family. During the same time, the city rebuffed an attempt by a nearby black community to gain admittance to the city limits, based on some allegedly dubious reasoning. In a 6-3 decision, Justice White upheld the Justice Department’s refusal to approve of Pleasant Grove’s proposed additions. Pleasant Grove argued that none of its actions would actually dilute the black vote, since none existed. White rejected this reasoning, finding that the acquisitions could have the effect of diluting future black voting power.

Powell dissented, and was joined by Rehnquist and O’Connor. He found White’s future vote dilution theory unsupported by the Court’s precedent. Even accepting it, Powell said that the addition of a single white family’s plot of land would not noticeably dilute black voting power. With respect to the uninhabited plot of land, Powell argued that it might actually increase black voting power, since blacks could move into it. Finally, he felt the city made a plausible non-racial case for its decision not to annex the nearby black community.

Personally, I think the future dilution theory is an acceptable interpretation of the VRA. Whether the two annexations really amounted to a dilution is a much closer question for me. Because the burden of proof is on the city rather than the Justice Department, I lean toward yes, but Powell made a rather good argument for answering no.

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