In 1985, four black residents and voters of Liberty County, Florida, filed two federal lawsuits challenging the at-large method of electing members to the Liberty County School Board and the Liberty County Commission as violating federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that the Liberty County Commission's at-large election method diluted black voters' voting strength in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and that the Liberty County School Board's at-large method diluted black voters' voting strength in violation of Section 2 of the VRA and the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. They sought an injunction barring the at-large election schemes from being used in future elections and an order dividing the county into five single-member districts, with one of them being a majority African-American district. The district court consolidated the cases for trial and initially rejected the plaintiffs' claims on the grounds the evidence presented was insufficient to demonstrate a violation of the Voting Rights Act, which the plaintiffs appealed.
On December 12, 1988, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated the district court's decision, finding the lower court failed to correctly apply the Thornburg v. Gingles analytical framework for vote dilution cases to this case and had made several errors in their conclusions of fact. On April 26, 1989, after granting a petition for a rehearing en banc, the Eleventh Circuit vacated the panel's previous opinion and issued its own holding that the plaintiffs had, as a matter of law, established the existence of the three Gingles factors (compactness, minority political cohesion, and majority bloc voting), however the court was divided as to their interpretation of Gingles and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. In Judge Kravitch's specially concurring opinion, some on the court expressed the view that proof of the three Gingles factors is both necessary and, in some cases including this one, is sufficient to conclusively establish and prevail on a Section 2 claim as a matter of law. Others on the court had the view, expressed in Judge Tjoflat's specially concurring opinion, that the existence of the totality of the circumstances test in the framework must mean that the defendant can rebut the plaintiff's claim, even after the plaintiff has offered proof of the three Gingles factors. Judge Tjoflat's concurrence also expressed the view that if the defendant can affirmatively show, under the totality of circumstances, that the community in question is not motivated by racial bias in its voting, then a claim for vote dilution can not be established. In light of the court's split opinions, the court remanded the case back to the district court with instructions to proceed in accordance with the Gingles framework, and to give "due consideration" to the views expressed in the special concurrences.
On remand, the district court undertook the totality of circumstances analysis and, on March 31, 1997, issued its opinion again rejecting the plaintiffs claims, finding that the evidence was again insufficient to establish a Section 2 violation. The plaintiffs appealed this decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals and, on February 3, 1999, an Eleventh Circuit panel reversed the lower court's decision. The panel found the district court committed clear error in finding that African-Americans hadn't been excluded from Liberty County's informal slating process, that African-Americans had enjoyed consistent electoral success in the county in recent years, and that the policy underlying the relevant voting procedures were not tenuous. After reweighing the evidence in light of these clear errors, the panel held that both the County Commission and School Board's at-large voting schemes violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. On March 14, 2000, the Eleventh Circuit granted a petition for a rehearing en banc and vacated the panel's latest decision.
On August 10, 2000, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, issued its opinion affirming the district court's ruling and rejecting the plaintiffs' claims on the grounds the district court properly understood the law, did not commit clear error in its findings, and came to the correct conclusion that African-Americans had equal access to the political process and an opportunity to elect representatives of their choice to the Liberty County Commission and the Liberty County School Board.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit - Nos. 87-3406 & 87-3406A
- Opinion [865 F.2d 1566] - 12/12/88
- Order Granting Rehearing En Banc [873 F.2d 248] - 4/26/89
- En Banc Opinion [899 F.2d 1012] - 4/5/97
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Tallahassee Division - Nos. TCA 85-7009 & TCA 85-7010
- Opinion [957 F.Supp. 1522] - 3/31/97
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit - No. 97-2540
- Brief for Plaintiffs-Appellants - 10/30/97
- Brief of Appellees Liberty County, Florida, et al. - 11/28/97
- Brief for Defendant-Appellee Liberty County School Board - 12/4/97
- Reply Brief for Plaintiffs-Appellants - 12/22/97
- Opinion [166 F.3d 1135] - 2/3/99
- Order Granting Rehearing En Banc [206 F.3d 1054] - 3/14/00
- En Banc Brief of Liberty County Board of County Commissioners - 5/12/00
- En Banc Opinion [221 F.3d 1218] - 8/10/00