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REAVES v. UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE

February 1, 2005.

FRANKLIN C. REAVES, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: A. RAYMOND RANDOLPH, Circuit Judge PAUL FRIEDMAN, District Judge JOHN BATES, District Judge

OPINION

Plaintiffs in this case are 27 United States citizens residing in various counties within Senate District No. 30 in South Carolina. Their claims arise from the decision of the South Carolina Democratic Party to void a June 8, 2004 primary election following an election contest, and to hold a special election on September 28, 2004. The complaint asserts two claims under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. § 1973 et seq., against defendants the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Voting Section Chief Joseph D. Rich (the "federal defendants"); and against the State of South Carolina.*fn1 Plaintiffs requested adjudication by a three-judge court, as authorized by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1973c, see Application for Three-Judge Court, and Chief Judge Ginsburg, at the request of the district judge to whom the case was Page 2 initially assigned and pursuant to statute, appointed one Circuit judge and an additional judge of this Court to serve on the three-judge panel. See 28 U.S.C. § 2284.

The federal defendants and the State of South Carolina have filed separate motions to dismiss. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant the federal defendants' motion and deny South Carolina's motion. It also will, sua sponte, transfer the case to the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina.

  I. BACKGROUND

  On June 8, 2004, the South Carolina Democratic Party held primary elections in State Senate District No. 30. Because of an election contest, the party invalidated the election on June 18, 2004.*fn2 At the request of the state Democratic Party and the South Carolina State Election Commission, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford on September 7, 2004 issued an executive order setting a special primary election for September 28, 2004. See S.C. Exec. Order No. 2004-25 (Sep. 7, 2004); Complaint ¶ 48. The next day, the State of South Carolina requested that the Attorney General of the United States conduct an expedited review of the executive order under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1973c. See United States' Page 3 Memorandum in Support of Motion to Dismiss and in Response to Plaintiffs' Motion to Stay Election Results at 5 and Attachment 1. On September 17, 2004, the Chief of the Justice Department's Voting Section responded to the request on behalf of the Attorney General, informing South Carolina that the Attorney General would not interpose any objection to the proposed change to state election procedures. See id. at 5-6 and Attachment 2.

  On October 22, 2004, plaintiffs, 27 African-American voters from South Carolina State Senate District No. 30, filed this action seeking to enjoin enforcement of the change to election procedures. See Compl. ¶¶ 54, 59. The same day, plaintiffs filed an application for a three-judge court as authorized by Section 5. After notification by District Judge Paul L. Friedman, to whom the case had originally been assigned, that the case seemed appropriate for the appointment of a three-judge court, Chief Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit designated Circuit Judge A. Raymond Randolph and District Judge John D. Bates to serve on a three-judge panel with Judge Friedman. See Designation of Judges to Serve on Three-Judge District Court (Nov. 2, 2004). On November 3, 2004, plaintiffs filed a motion to stay the election results in Senate District No. 30.

  The federal defendants have filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, asserting that, to the extent the complaint seeks review of the Attorney General's decision not to object to the proposed change in voting procedures, it fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or, in the alternative, that this Court is without subject matter jurisdiction to consider it; that plaintiffs have failed to plead sufficient facts to confer standing; and that plaintiffs' claim that South Carolina failed to obtain preclearance of changes to polling places cannot be asserted against the federal defendants. See United States' Memorandum in Support of Motion to Page 4 Dismiss and in Response to Plaintiffs' Motion to Stay Election Results at 1-2. The State of South Carolina also filed a motion to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint, arguing that the state's Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity bars suit in federal court. After review of the parties' filings, the Court will grant the United States' motion to dismiss and deny South Carolina's motion to dismiss. In the interests of justice, however, it will transfer the case to the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina.

  II. DISCUSSION

  A. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act

  Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits certain jurisdictions, South Carolina included, from implementing any change to state election practice or procedure without first obtaining a declaratory judgment that the change "does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color." 42 U.S.C. § 1973c. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia has exclusive jurisdiction over such actions, which are heard before a specially designated three-judge court. Id. As an alternative to seeking a declaratory judgment, the state may submit the proposed change to the Attorney General of the United States for "preclearance." If the Attorney General affirmatively indicates that he will raise no objection to the proposed change, or fails to raise an objection within 60 days, the state may enforce the change. 42 U.S.C. § 1973c. See also Lopez v. Montgomery County, 519 U.S. 9, 11-12 (1996); New York v. United States, 874 F. Supp. 394, 395-96 (D.D.C. 1994). Page 5

  In addition to the declaratory judgment action explicitly authorized by the statute, the Supreme Court has recognized two causes of action implied by Section 5. First, the Attorney General of the United States may seek an injunction prohibiting the enforcement of a new voting regulation because of the enacting state's failure to obtain preclearance under Section 5. See Allen v. Bd. of Elections, 393 U.S. 544, 561 (1969). Second, a private citizen may seek a declaratory judgment that a new state enactment is governed by Section 5 and therefore is subject to preclearance requirements. See id. at 555 & n. 19, 557; see also Lopez v. Montgomery County, 519 U.S. at 20. Such "coverage suits" by private citizens must be heard by three-judge courts, Allen v. Bd. of Elections, 393 U.S. at 563, but because they address only the question of whether a particular enactment is subject to the Voting Rights Act and not the "difficult substantive issue" of whether it has a discriminatory purpose or effect, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia does not have exclusive jurisdiction over such suits. Id. at 558-60; see also Perkins v. Matthews, 400 U.S. 379, 383-86 (1971).*fn3

  B. Federal Defendants' Motion to Dismiss

  The federal defendants have moved to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim. Because the Court finds that Count I of plaintiffs' complaint does not state any cognizable cause of action, and that Count II of the complaint establishes no "case or controversy" with respect to the federal defendants, the ...


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