Gomillion v. Lightfoot
Decided on Nov. 14, 1960; 364 US 339


Black voters in Alabama claim state is responsible for racial gerrymandering
and violating their Fifteenth Amendment
rights

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

A. Issues Discussed: Civil Right (race), 15th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Was the 15th Amendment of the US Constitution violated when the Alambama state legislature changed the boundaries of the city of Tuskegee in such a way as to exclude all but "four or five" of the city's 400 eligible black voters but none of the eligible white voters?
II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

In 1957, the Alabama state legislature passed Local Act No. 140 which changed the city of Tuskegee's electoral district boundaries. The region was changed from a square shape into a twenty-eight sided figure.  The effect was that "all but four or five" of the city's 400 eligible black voters found themselves living outside city limits, and thus ineligible to vote in city elections. No eligible white voters were affected by the Act.

Petitioners, Gomillion and other black former residents of Tuskegee, brought suit against Respondent Lightfoot, the Mayor of Tuskegee, in federal court seeking two things: a judgment that the Act was unconstitutional and an order to prevent city and county officials from enforcing it.  Petitioners argued that the purpose of the Act was to deprive blacks of their right to vote on account of their race, thus violating the 15th Amendment. 

The court dismissed Petitioner's suit on the ground that it had no authority to declare the Act invalid or to change any boundaries of municipal corporations fixed by the state legislature. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court's decision. The petitioners sought review in the US Supreme Court and the high court granted certiorari. 
B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Fred D. Gray and Robert L. Carter argued the cause for petitioners. With them on the brief was Arthur D. Shores.
James J. Carter argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Thomas B. Hill, Jr., and Harry D. Raymon.
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable  
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Lawrence Speiser filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union, as amicus curiae, urging reversal.

Philip Elman argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, urging reversal. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Rankin, Assistant Attorney General Tyler, Daniel M. Friedman, Harold H. Greene, D. Robert Owen and J. Harold Flannery, Jr.
No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Respondent.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"These allegations, if proven, would abundantly establish that Act 140 was not an ordinary geographic redistricting measure even within familiar abuses of gerrymandering. If these allegations upon a trial remained uncontradicted or unqualified, the conclusion would be irresistible, tantamount for all practical purposes to a mathematical demonstration, that the legislation is solely concerned with segregating white and colored voters by fencing Negro citizens out of town so as to deprive them of their pre-existing municipal vote...

The complaint amply alleges a claim of racial discrimination. Against this claim the respondents have never suggested, either in their brief or in oral argument, any countervailing municipal function which Act 140 is designed to serve...
 
A statute which is alleged to have worked unconstitutional deprivations of petitioners' rights is not immune to attack simply because the mechanism employed by the legislature is a redefinition of municipal boundaries.  According to the allegations here made, the Alabama Legislature has not merely redrawn the Tuskegee city limits with incidental inconvenience to the petitioners; it is more accurate to say that it has deprived the petitioners of the municipal franchise and consequent rights and to that end it has incidentally changed the city's boundaries. While in form this is merely an act redefining metes and bounds, if the allegations are established, the inescapable human effect of this essay in geometry and geography is to despoil colored citizens, and only colored citizens, of their theretofore enjoyed voting rights...

For these reasons, the principal conclusions of the District Court and the Court of Appeals are clearly erroneous and the decision below must be reversed."
Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con

  • Frankfurter, F. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Warren, E. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Black, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Clark, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Harlan, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Whittaker, C. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU filled as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.