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HATHORN V. LOVORN, 457 U. S. 255 (1982)

U.S. Supreme Court

Hathorn v. Lovorn, 457 U.S. 255 (1982)

Hathorn v. Lovorn

No. 81-451

Argued April 27, 1982

Decided June 15, 1982

457 U.S. 255


A 1964 Mississippi statute provides that boards of trustees of municipal separate school districts in the State shall consist of five members, and that in any county in which a district embraces the entire county "in which Highways 14 and 15 intersect," one trustee shall be elected from each supervisors district. The Louisville School District is coextensive with Winston County, Miss., which is the only county in which Highways 14 and 15 intersect. Since 1960, the Louisville mayor and city aldermen appointed three of the five members of the District's Board of Trustees, and Winston County voters residing outside Louisville elected the other two members. The county officials never implemented the 1964 statute. Respondent Winston County voters filed an action against petitioner local officials in Mississippi Chancery Court seeking to enforce the 1964 statute. The court dismissed the complaint on the ground that the statute violated the state constitutional bar against local legislation. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed and remanded, striking only the statute's reference to Highways 14 and 15 and upholding the remainder of the statute. The Supreme Court, without comment, denied petitioners' petition for rehearing in which they argued for the first time that the Chancery Court could not implement the reformed statute until the change had been precleared under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On remand, the Chancery Court ordered an election pursuant to the redacted statute under procedures prescribed by the court, but directed petitioners to submit the election plan to the United States Attorney General for preclearance under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The Attorney General subsequently objected to the plan, and the Chancery Court ultimately concluded that its order would remain in force subject to compliance with the Voting Rights Act. Respondents once again appealed to the Supreme Court, which held that its prior decision was the law of the case and that the Chancery Court improperly conditioned the election on compliance with the Voting Rights Act.


1. The Mississippi Supreme Court's decision did not rest on independent and adequate state grounds so as to bar this Court's review of the federal issue. Where the state court's first decision did not appear final when rendered, the court's subsequent reliance on the law of the case

Page 457 U. S. 256

does not prevent this Court from reviewing federal questions determined in the first appeal. Nor does the fact that petitioners' reliance upon the Voting Rights Act issue for the first time in their petition for rehearing may have been untimely under a Mississippi procedural rule constitute an independent and adequate state ground barring this Court's review of the federal question, where it appears that, if Mississippi still follows such a rule, it does not do so "strictly or regularly." Pp. 457 U. S. 261-265.

2. The Mississippi courts had the power to decide whether § 5 of the Voting Rights Act applied to the change in election procedures sought by respondents, and must withhold further implementation of the disputed change until the parties demonstrate compliance with § 5. Both the language and purposes of the Act refute the notion that a state court asked to implement a change in the State's voting laws cannot inquire whether the change is subject to § 5, but must ignore that circumstance and enter a decree violating federal law. Section 14(b) of the Act, which provides that no court other than the District Court for the District of Columbia shall have jurisdiction to enter a declaratory judgment pursuant to § 5 governs only declaratory judgments approving proposed voting procedure changes. And nothing in the provisions of § 5, requiring an action under that section to be heard by a three-judge federal district court, or in the provisions of § 12(f) of the Act, giving federal district courts jurisdiction of proceedings under that section, negates the presumption that, at least when the issue arises collaterally, state courts have the power to decide whether a proposed change in election procedures requires preclearance under § 5. Granting state courts such power helps to insure compliance with the preclearance scheme. Pp. 457 U. S. 265-271.

399 So.2d 1356, reversed and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., concurred in the judgment. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 457 U. S. 271.

Page 457 U. S. 257

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