Ball v. James
Decided on Apr. 29, 1981; 451 US 355


Renters challenge voting scheme that favored landowners

I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Civil Rights (voting), 14th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Can a local governmental body of Arizona be released from the strict demands of the one-person, one-vote principle of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

Appellants, The Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District (District), a governmental entity, stored and delivered untreated water to the owners of 236,000 acres of land in central Arizona, and, to subsidize its water operations, sold electricity to hundreds of thousands of people in an area including a large part of metropolitan Phoenix. Under state law, the system for electing the District's directors limited voting eligibility to landowners and apportioned voting power according to the number of acres owned.

Appellees, a class of registered voters living within the District, but owning either no land or less than an acre of land, filed suit, claiming that the election scheme violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. They alleged that because the District had governmental powers such as the authority to condemn land and sell tax-exempt bonds, and because it sold electricity to virtually half the State's population and exercised significant influence on flood control and environmental management, its policies and actions substantially affected all District residents, regardless of property ownership. The District Court upheld the constitutionality of the voting scheme, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.
B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Bruce Meyerson argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief was Amy J. Gittler.
Rex E. Lee argued the cause for appellants. With him on the briefs were John L. Kyl and Neil Vincent Wake.
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
"The District exercises significant authority on matters of importance to its residents without any public control or accountability… The District does not belong to private owners; it belongs to the public. Yet it is not accountable to the public for its rates and terms of service through the regulatory process; nor is it accountable through the electoral process. It is a public entity wielding public power, yet a large part of the public which bears its costs is foreclosed from participation in the election of the public officers who make its policies and direct its operations…

It is virtually self-evident that it is inconsistent with American principles of democracy that landowners should exclusively control the election of a body of public officers whose policies so vitally affect the public interest as the Salt River District Board. It is similarly self-evident that the electoral system should not be skewed so that, among those landowners, the largest have the greatest vote…

Appellants, in their effort to retain a preferred class of voters, lose sight of the fact that the District is not owned by its landed residents. It is not a private preserve but a public body. Its owners are 'we the people' -landowners and nonlandowners alike. And all those people who dwell within its boundaries who meet the basic qualifications of age, residence, and citizenship have a right under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution to participate in the election by which the Directors of their District are chosen." – ACLU brief in Ball v. James
Unavailable


 

III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Noel Fidel filed a brief for the Arizona Civil Liberties Union et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance. No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Appellants.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"First, the District simply does not exercise the sort of governmental powers that invoke the strict demands of Reynolds [Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U. S. 533]. The District cannot impose ad valorem property taxes or sales taxes. It cannot enact any laws governing the conduct of citizens, nor does it administer such normal functions of government as the maintenance of streets, the operation of schools, or sanitation, health, or welfare services… Neither the existence nor size of the District's power business affects the legality of its property-based voting scheme… since the electric power functions were stipulated to be incidental to the water functions which are the District's primary purpose, they cannot change the character of that enterprise.

In this case, the parties have stipulated that the primary legislative purpose of the District is to store, conserve, and deliver water for use by District landowners, that the sole legislative reason for making water projects public entities was to enable them to raise revenue through interest-free bonds, and that the development and sale of electric power was undertaken not for the primary purpose of providing electricity to the public, but 'to support the primary irrigation functions by supplying power for reclamation uses and by providing revenues which could be applied to increase the amount and reduce the cost of water to Association subscribed lands...'

[A]ccording to the stipulation of the parties, the subscriptions of land which made the Association and then the District possible might well have never occurred had not the subscribing landowners been assured a special voice in the conduct of the District's business. Therefore... the State could rationally limit the vote to landowners. Moreover, Arizona could rationally make the weight of their vote dependent upon the number of acres they own, since that number reasonably reflects the relative risks they incurred as landowners and the distribution of the benefits and the burdens of the District's water operations.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. It is so ordered."
Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con

  • Stewart P. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. J. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Joined majority opinion, wrote concurring opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

    The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.