New York City Board of Estimate v. Morris
Decided on Mar. 22, 1989; 489 US 688


A. Issues Discussed: Equal Protection Clause

B. Legal Question Presented:

 Is the election of Boards, with fiscal and legislative functions, subject to review under the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause?


A. Background:

 "The Board of Estimate of the City of New York consists of three members elected citywide, plus the elected presidents of each of the city's five boroughs...

Appellees, residents and voters of Brooklyn, New York City's most populous borough, commenced this action against the city in December 1981. They charged that the city's charter sections that govern the composition of the Board of Estimate are inconsistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as construed and applied in various decisions of this Court dealing with districting and apportionment for the purpose of electing legislative bodies. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that the board was not subject to the rule established by Reynolds v. Sims, its companion cases, and its progeny, such as Abate v. Mundt because in its view the board is a nonelective, nonlegislative body. The Court of Appeals reversed. Because all eight officials on the board ultimately are selected by popular vote, the court concluded that the board's selection process must comply with the so-called 'one-person, one-vote' requirement of the reapportionment cases. The court remanded to the District Court to ascertain whether this compliance exists... [T]he District Court determined first, that applying this Court's methodology in Abate v. Mundt to the disparate borough populations produced a total deviation of 132.9% from voter equality among these electorates; and second, that the city's several explanations for this range neither require nor justify the electoral scheme's gross deviation from equal representation. The court thus found it unnecessary to hold that the deviation it identified was per se unconstitutional.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. Tracing the imperative of each citizen's equal power to elect representatives from Reynolds v. Sims to Abate v. Mundt and beyond, the court endorsed the District Court's focus on population per representative..."

On appeal the US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the US 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Brief of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the Citizens Union of the city of New York by John V. Lindsay, Donald J. Cohn, and Alan Rothstein; and for Peter F. Vallone et al. by Mr. Vallone, pro se, and Susan Belgard.

Richard D. Emery argued the cause for appellees in both cases. With him on the brief were Paul W. Kahn, Arthur N. Eisenberg, John A. Powell, and Steven R. Shapiro.

Brief of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the Staten Island League for Better Government by Michael Weinberger; for Abraham D. Beame et al. by Edward N. Costikyan, Simon H. Rifkind, and Gerard E. Harper; and for John J. Marchi by Mr. Marchi, pro se, and David Jaffe.

Peter L. Zimroth argued the cause for appellants in both cases. With him on the briefs for appellants in No. 87-1022 were Leonard J. Koerner, Jeffrey D. Friedlander, Stephen J. McGrath, and Fay Leoussis. Philip G. Minardo filed briefs for appellant in No. 87-1112.


"As an initial matter, we reject the city's suggestion that because the Board of Estimate is a unique body wielding nonlegislative powers, board membership elections are not subject to review under the prevailing reapportionment doctrine. The equal protection guarantee of 'one-person, one-vote' extends not only to congressional districting plans, not only to state legislative districting, but also to local government apportionment. Both state and local elections are subject to the general rule of population equality between electoral districts. No distinction between authority exercised by state assemblies, and the general governmental powers delegated by these assemblies to local, elected officials, suffices to insulate the latter from the standard of substantial voter equality...

These cases are based on the propositions that in this country the people govern themselves through their elected representatives and that 'each and every citizen has an inalienable right to full and effective participation in the political processes' of the legislative bodies of the Nation, State, or locality as the case may be. Since '[m]ost citizens can achieve this participation only as qualified voters through the election of legislators to represent them,' full and effective participation requires 'that each citizen have an equally effective voice in the election of members of his . . . legislature.'

...That the members of New York City's Board of Estimate trigger this constitutional safeguard is certain. All eight officials become members as a matter of law upon their various elections. The mayor, the comptroller, and the president of the city council, who constitute the board's citywide number, are elected by votes of the entire city electorate. Each of these three cast two votes... Similarly, when residents of the city's five boroughs... elect their respective borough presidents, the elections decide each borough's representative on the board. These five members each have single votes on all board matters...

The city presents in this Court nothing that was not considered below, arguing chiefly that the board, as presently structured, is essential to the successful government of a regional entity, the City of New York. The board, it is said, accommodates natural and political boundaries as well as local interests. Furthermore, because the board has been effective it should not be disturbed. All of this, the city urges, is supported by the city's history. The courts below, of course, are in a much better position than we to assess the weight of these arguments, and they concluded that the proffered governmental interests were either invalid or were not sufficient to justify a deviation of 132%, in part because the valid interests of the city could be served by alternative ways of constituting the board that would minimize the discrimination in voting power among the five boroughs. Their analysis is equally applicable to a 78% deviation, and we conclude that the city's proffered governmental interests do not suffice to justify such a substantial departure from the one-person, one-vote ideal."

The US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the US 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con

  • White, B. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Pro (Joined concurring opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)

The ACLU, as counsel, urged affirmance of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals judgment; the Supreme Court affirmed in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.