Eleventh Circuit Remands Voting Rights Act Case Due to Procedural Errors

In Ga. State Conference of the NAACP v. Fayette Cnty. Bd. of Comm’rs., Nos. 14-11202 & 14-11204 (Jan. 7, 2015), a three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the plaintiff and remanded for further proceedings. The Georgia Conference of the NAACP and ten African-American registered voters in Fayette County sued the Board of Commissioners (BOC) and the Board of Education (BOE) in Fayette County, alleging that the County’s at-large election system violated Section Two (§ 2) of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), §2, 52 U.S.C. §10301, and resulted in vote dilution.

Fayette County is located in the northwestern part of Georgia. Approximately 19.5% of the voting-age population identifies as African-American. At the time this suit was commenced, no African-American candidate had ever been elected to the BOC or BOE, regardless of the candidates’ qualifications or party affiliation. The Plaintiffs allege that this was the result of the county’s at-large voting system, which required candidates to win a county-wide election for a seat on one of the boards. The Plaintiffs averred that the County should create a single majority-minority district to allow “African-Americans the opportunity for meaningful political participation and the ability to elect candidates of their choice.”

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The district court found that the voting system resulted in vote dilution, relying on the Supreme Court’s framework in Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30 (1986), and granted summary judgment for the Plaintiffs. However, in doing so, the district court failed to notify the BOE that it was considering granting summary judgment against it. The district court also weighed the evidence submitted by the moving parties. Because of these errors, the Eleventh Circuit held that the determination of the § 2 issue on summary judgment was error.

The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion began by briefly tracing the history and purpose of the VRA, noting that the law was enacted to effectuate the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to vote, and prohibits any electoral practice which results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen to vote on account of race or color. The court explained the three necessary showings a party must make under § 2 in order to establish a violation of the VRA. However, the court did not reach the merits of the case before it, reversing instead on procedural grounds.

The court noted that the grant of summary judgment against the BOE was improper because the district court failed to give notice to the BOE. The Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment explicitly excluded the BOE, yet the district court, sua sponte, determined that the motion should be granted against the BOE. The Eleventh Circuit reversed this decision because the BOE was not notice, a requirement that is more than an “unimportant technicality.”

The Eleventh Circuit found that summary judgment against the BOC was also improper because such a judgment required the district court to weigh the evidence and make credibility determinations. The court was particularly cautious, noting the heavy interests in the right to vote. Nevertheless, the court held that it was error for the district court to weigh the evidence and determine the credibility of witnesses based on the evidence produced in discovery without a bench trial.

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