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Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder

September 16, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge


Shelby County has sued Attorney General Eric Holder, seeking a declaratory judgment that Sections 4(b) and 5 of the Voting Rights Act ("VRA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1973b(b) and 1973(c), are unconstitutional. Shortly after filing its complaint, Shelby County moved for summary judgment. The United States, as well as defendant-intervenors -- a civil rights organization and a number of individuals -- ask the Court to deny the motion as premature, or in the alternative to grant discovery pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(f).*fn1 The Court heard oral argument on defendant's request on September 10, 2010.*fn2

Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings and the evidence demonstrate that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The moving party may successfully support its motion by identifying those portions of "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits" which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2); see also Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323.

If a party opposing a motion for summary judgment "shows by affidavit that, for specified reasons, it cannot present facts essential to justify its opposition, the court may . . . order a continuance to enable affidavits to be obtained, depositions to be taken, or other discovery to be undertaken." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(f). "The purpose of Rule 56(f) is to prevent 'railroading' the non-moving party through a premature motion for summary judgment before the non-moving party has had the opportunity to make full discovery." 1443 Chapin St., LP v. PNC Bank, 258 F.R.D. 186, 187 (D.D.C. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). But "[t]he Rule is not designed to allow 'fishing expeditions,' and [parties] must specifically explain what their proposed discovery would likely reveal and why that revelation would advance the [party's] case." Milligan v. Clinton, 266 F.R.D. 17, 18-19 (D.D.C. 2010); see also Strang v. United States Arms Control & Disarmament Agency, 864 F.2d 859, 861 (D.C. Cir. 1989) (a court "may deny a motion for summary judgment or order a continuance to permit discovery if the party opposing the motion adequately explains why, at that timepoint, it cannot present by affidavit facts needed to defeat the motion").

Here, Defendants argue that they need discovery for three primary reasons: (1) to determine whether Shelby County has standing to bring suit; (2) to evaluate whether Shelby County may be eligible to "bail out" from the VRA's requirements; and (3) to gather information relating to the VRA's constitutionality. The Court takes each argument in turn.

1. Standing

To establish that it has standing to bring this suit, Shelby County offers that "[i]n the last ten years, [it] has sought preclearance numerous times, expended significant taxpayer dollars, time, and energy to meet its obligations under Section 5 of the VRA, and has had at least one election delayed in order to ensure compliance with the preclearance obligations of Section 5 of the VRA." See Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mot.") [Docket Entry 5], Decl. of Frank Ellis, at ¶ 7. The government responds that, without discovery, it "is unable to determine whether Plaintiff has, in fact, suffered injury in complying with Sections 4(b) and 5." Gov't's Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Gov't's Opp'n") [Docket Entry 7], at 11. Hence, although the government has not yet contested Shelby County's standing, it requests discovery in order to evaluate whether it will do so.

The government has not shown that it needs discovery to assess Shelby County's standing. The government has offered no reason to doubt the veracity of Ellis's declaration in support of standing. See Strang, 864 F.2d at 861 ("Without some reason to question the veracity of affiants . . . [a party's] desire to 'test and elaborate' affiants' testimony [through Rule 56(f) discovery] falls short."). And at oral argument, the government was unable to articulate any reason why a covered jurisdiction subject to Section 5's preclearance requirement -- such as Shelby County -- would lack standing to bring this type of action.*fn3 Thus, neither the government nor defendant-intervenors have put forth "specified reasons" why discovery is necessary to evaluate Shelby County's standing. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(f).

2. Bailout

The government's next argument in support of its discovery request stems from the "bailout" provision of Section 4(a) of the VRA, which "allow[s] jurisdictions with clean records to terminate their section 5 preclearance obligation." Nw. Austin Mun. Util. Dist. No. One v. Mukasey (Nw. Austin I), 573 F. Supp. 2d 221, 226 (D.D.C. 2008) (three-judge court), rev'd on other grounds by 129 S.Ct. 2504 (2009). Shelby County believes that it is not eligible for bailout. See Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. [Docket Entry 5], at 41 n.8. The government does not really contest the specifics of Shelby County's position, but states that it "does not presently know[] the degree to which Shelby County could meet or not meet each of the statutory bailout criteria under Section 4(a) of the [VRA]." Gov't's Opp'n at 10. The government suggests that if Shelby County is, in fact, eligible for bailout, granting that relief could obviate the need for any constitutional challenge. Accordingly, the government seeks discovery on this issue.*fn4

Shelby County "has not," however, "sought 'bailout' from coverage pursuant to Section 4(a) of the VRA." Pl.'s Reply in Supp. of Mot. ("Pl.'s Reply") [Docket Entry 14], at 2. And the government agreed at oral argument that neither it nor this Court could force Shelby County to accept bailout. Thus, further factual investigation on this point would reveal only whether Shelby County is eligible for relief that it explicitly has not sought. The parties have pointed to no authority, and the Court is unaware of any, that would support discovery under such circumstances.

3. Constitutionality of the VRA

Shelby County's complaint seeks a declaratory judgment that Sections 4(b) and 5 of the VRA are unconstitutional. See Compl., Prayer ¶ 44(a). It does not request any relief specific to Shelby County itself. Accordingly, the county's suit is properly deemed a facial challenge. See Doe v. Reed, 130 S.Ct. 2811, 2817 (2010) (for a challenge to be facial, "[t]he important point is that plaintiffs' claim and the relief that would follow . . . reach beyond the particular circumstances of these plaintiffs"). Indeed, at oral argument Shelby County explicitly waived any as-applied challenge in this case.*fn5

Because Shelby County brings only a facial challenge to the VRA, discovery into that claim is unwarranted. As a three-judge court of this district recently noted, a court's role in resolving a facial challenge to the 2006 extension of the VRA is limited to assessing whether "the 2006 legislative record contain[s] sufficient evidence of contemporary discrimination in voting to justify Congress's decision to subject covered jurisdictions to section 5 preclearance for another twenty-five years." Nw. Austin I, 573 F. Supp. 2d at 265. In other words, a ...

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