The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder

In June 2009, the Supreme Court ruled in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder that all individual jurisdictions should have the opportunity to bail out of a provision in the Voting Rights Act that requires federal preclearance for changes in election procedures. However, the Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the provision itself.

About This Case

On August 4, 2006, just six days after the President signed the renewal of the historic Voting Rights Act (VRA), the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District (MUD) in Texas filed suit in federal court claiming the VRA is no longer needed and unconstitutional.

One of many municipal utility districts in Texas, the Northwest Austin MUD is a local authority that regulates water services, park maintenance, and other services in a set geographic area.

The MUD sought to escape the requirement found in Section 5 of the VRA, which mandates that jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in their voting practices receive federal "preclearance" for all changes in voting laws before such changes can take place. These jurisdictions must demonstrate to federal authorities that the proposed voting change does not have a discriminatory purpose or effect.

A provision of Section 5 allows a "political subdivision" to be released from the preclearance requirements if certain rigorous conditions are met. Though covered by the VRA, entities like the MUD are not eligible for "bailout" from the requirements because they do not fit the definition of a "political subdivision" specified in the law.

The MUD made two arguments in their case: that it should be entitled to a bailout; and in the alternative, "the conditions that caused Texas to be covered under Section 5 have long been remedied," and that the courts should strike down the VRA.

In May 2008, a federal court upheld the constitutionality of the VRA, finding the MUD's arguments unpersuasive and rejecting its claim to be exempt from Section 5 enforcement.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, and various civil rights groups filed legal briefs showing that voter discrimination still persists in Texas and in other jurisdictions covered by Section 5, and arguing for upholding the constitutionality of the preclearance provision.

In a 8-1 decision on June 22, 2009, the Supreme Court allowed the Northwest Austin MUD and others like it to file a bailout suit, but it declined to address the issue of Section 5's constitutionality.

Amicus Curiae

On March 25, 2009, The Leadership Conference and The Education Fund filed an Amicus Curiae Brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Eric Holder, Jr, Attorney General, et al.

In the brief, The Leadership Conference and The Education Fund support the constitutionality of Congress' 2006 reauthorization of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which requires states and localities with a history of discrimination to submit changes in their voting process and procedures to Department of Justice or a federal D.C. district court for approval or "preclearance."

The Leadership Conference/Education Fund brief cites the Court's own recent decision in Bartlett v. Strickland, in which the Court said that "racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history."

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