Salyer Land Co. v. Tulare Water District
Decided on Mar. 20, 1973; 410 US 719

Landowners and disenfranchised voters sue for the right to expand their voting bloc


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

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does the California statutory scheme establishing water storage districts violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

A. Background:

Appellee Tulare Water Storage District consists of 193,000 acres of intensively cultivated, highly fertile farm land located in the Tulare Lake Basin.  The district exists for the purpose of acquiring, storing, and distributing water for farming in the Tulare Lake Basin.  At the time of this suit, the district had a population of 77 persons, most of whom were employees of one of the four corporations that farmed the district's land. 

The district was governed by a board of directors, and each director was elected in a general election.  Only landowners were permitted to vote in the elections for the board of directors, and votes were apportioned according to the assessed valuation of the land.

Residents who were not landowners felt disenfranchised by not given the privilege to vote, while the smaller landowners believed that the votes were too heavily weighted by the larger landowners. Appellants were landowners, a landowner-lessee, and residents within the area included in the appellee's water storage district. They brought suit, alleging that the voter qualification, that only landowners were permitted to vote, unconstitutionally denied them the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. 

A three-judge court was convened, and the District Court held that the California Water Code (containing the voter requirements) did not violate the Equal Protection Clause.  Appellants appealed the judgment directly to the US Supreme Court and the high court granted certiorari.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Thomas Keister Greer argued the cause for appellant. On the brief was C. Ray Robinson.
Robert M. Newell argued the cause for appellee. On the brief was Ernest M. Clark, Jr.

C. The Arguments:

Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable


Opposing Side
 David Hall, Melvin L. Wulf, Sanford Jay Rosen, and Joel M. Gora filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation South Texas Project as amicus curiae, urging reversal.
Briefs of amicus curiae urging affirmance was filed by George Basye for California Central Valleys Flood Control Association; Denslow Green for Irrigation Districts Association of California.

"[T]his Court has firmly established the principle that the Equal Protection Clause does not make every minor difference in the application of laws to different groups a violation of our Constitution. But we have also held many times that 'invidious' distinctions cannot be enacted without a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. In determining whether or not a state law violates the Equal Protection Clause, we must consider the facts and circumstances behind the law, the interests which the State claims to be protecting, and the interests of those who are disadvantaged by the classification...'

The appellee district in this case, although vested with some typical governmental powers, has relatively limited authority.  Its primary to provide for the acquisition, storage, and distribution of water for farming in the Tulare Lake Basin. It provides no other general public services such as schools, housing, transportation, utilities, roads, or anything else of the type ordinarily financed by a municipal body... Not only does the district not exercise what might be thought of as 'normal governmental' authority, but its actions disproportionately affect landowners... In short, there is no way that the economic burdens of district operations can fall on residents qua residents, and the operations of the districts primarily affect the land within their boundaries.

Under these circumstances, it is quite understandable that the statutory framework for election of directors of the appellee focuses on the land benefited, rather than on people as such... We hold, therefore, that the popular election requirements enunciated by Reynolds, and succeeding cases are inapplicable to elections such as the general election of appellee Water Storage District...

[A]ppellants assert that even if residents may be excluded from the vote, lessees who farm the land have interests that are indistinguishable from those of the landowners. Like landowners, they take an interest in increasing the available water for farming and, because the costs of district projects may be passed on to them  either by express agreement or by increased rentals, they have an equal interest in the costs...

[A]ppellants' argument ignores the realities of water storage district operation... Thus, as the District Court found, 'the benefits and burdens to each landowner... are in proportion to the assessed value of the land.'  We cannot say that the California legislative decision to permit voting in the same proportion is not rationally based.

Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the three-judge District Court and hold that the voter qualification statutes for California water storage district elections are rationally based, and therefore do not violate the Equal Protection Clause."

Held: The judgment of the District Court is affirmed.
Justice Vote: 3 Pro vs. 6 Con
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)

    The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the District Court in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.