Case: United States v. Atkins

61-02584 | U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama

Filed Date: 1961

Closed Date: 1965

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Case Summary

This case is part of the Clearinghouse Special Collection on the events and litigation leading up to and surrounding the famous Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965. The Department of Justice field this suit in March 1961, challenging the racially discriminatory voter registration practices of the State of Alabama and the Dallas County Board of Registrars. The DOJ brought this suit under the Civil Rights Act, seeking injunctive relief. The case was brought in the U.S. District Court for the Sou…

This case is part of the Clearinghouse Special Collection on the events and litigation leading up to and surrounding the famous Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965.

The Department of Justice field this suit in March 1961, challenging the racially discriminatory voter registration practices of the State of Alabama and the Dallas County Board of Registrars. The DOJ brought this suit under the Civil Rights Act, seeking injunctive relief. The case was brought in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.

The Alabama Constitution required applicants for voter registration, among other things, be able to read and write in the English any part of the federal Constitution the registrar requests, and to fill out a questionnaire without assistance from the registrar.

In May 1961, state officials appointed a new Board of Registrars in Dallas County.

On November 15, 1962, the court denied injunctive relief, with one exception. 210 F. Supp. 441. Judge Daniel Thomas found that between 1952 and 1960, the State and County "refused" to register many qualified black voters while registering unqualified white voters. But, the court found that since June 1961, after this suit was commenced, the then-current Board of Registrars "has fulfilled its duties in a manner which could well be emulated by all other Boards in the United States." The court held that the evidence did not suggest the Board had engaged in racially discriminatory conduct, did not apply different standards in assessing black and white applications, did not unreasonably delay black voter registration, did not ignore or reject applications from qualified black applicants, did notify black applicants if their applications were denied or accepted, and did provide a full time Board of Registrars. The only violation that the court found and ordered the State and County to change was the practice of prohibiting rejected applicants from reapplying ever again.

Judge Thomas went on to say that the DOJ should acknowledge the progress of the current Board of Registrars "and not insist on litigating over past inequities." Moreover, he added that "[t]hese problems must...and should be resolved by the people and not by the courts...[T]he Dallas County Board of Registrars...have fairly resolved this most important problem." Thus, Judge Thomas held that the DOJ had authority to bring this suit under the Civil Rights Act and that there were indeed discriminatory practices when the suit was brought, but the new Board "ha[d] made every effort to comply with the letter and spirit of the law, and ha[d] taken the necessary steps to eliminate the discrimination which was the basis of the suit." The court held that an injunction was not warranted when there is no evidence to suggest the discrimination will be continue; such a remedy was not available for mere suspicion of future wrongdoing.

The DOJ appealed the decision, and on October 3, 1963, the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded with an opinion by Judge Richard Rives. 323 F.2d 733. Judge Rives was part of the "Fifth Circuit Four" - four Fifth Circuit judges known for advancing civil rights through their decisions in the 1950s and 1960s. The Fifth Circuit noted that the current Board of Registrars changed several practices, including: (1) making the questionnaire into a test that had to be correctly filled out, though there were no corresponding published grading standards, (2) asking applicants oral questions, usually about the meaning of the federal or state constitutions, (3) making inquiries into applicants' character and reputation, (4) giving all applicants notice of registration rejection or acceptance, and (5) prohibiting reapplication upon on rejection. The District Court had upheld all but the last practice.

The Fifth Circuit held that based on evidence presented, the District Court had not committed a clear error in its findings. The court found that the evidence could certainly have led to a conclusion that the current Board of Registrars was discriminating, but that such evidence was not compelling enough to find clear error.

However, the Fifth Circuit held that the District Court did commit an abuse of discretion in denying injunctive relief. The court found that "voluntary cessation of allegedly illegal conduct does not deprive the tribunal of power to hear and determine the case, for the defendant is free to return to his old ways and there is a public interest in having the legality of the practices settled." Short of state officials telling the court they did not intend to discriminate in the future, the Fifth Circuit did not find any other demonstration that there is "no reasonable expectation that the wrong will be repeated." The court held that these statements from state officials were not binding and therefore insufficient to moot the case. To the contrary, the court found that if there existed "some cognizable danger of recurrent violation, more than a mere possibility," then the District Court abused its discretion in denying injunctive relief. The Fifth Circuit considered the following factors: (1) the State and County previously "willfully and deliberately" deprived black voters of the right to register in a "flagrant and open manner," (2) lack of questionnaire grading standards that made it difficult to assess if there was discrimination, (3) use of oral questioning without set standards or recording the proceedings, (4) failure to record the exact reason for application denial, and (5) barring reapplication.

The court found that these policies made future discrimination more likely, made it difficult to assess discrimination, and compounded the impact of discrimination by barring reapplication. Thus, the Fifth Circuit held that there was a cognizable danger of future discrimination, and that the District Court should have issued a general injunction barring discrimination. As to more specific injunctive relief aimed at particular practices, the Fifth Circuit held that an injunction should be issued that (1) the Board must adopt uniform objective standards in grading its questionnaires if it continued using the questionnaire, (2) the Board must maintain precise records of the reasons for rejecting an application, (3) the Board must ask oral questions based on a specific set of predetermined questions and it must maintain records of the questions and answers given, (4) the Board could not reject applicants on the basis of lack of good character without revealing the reason and providing a hearing, and (5) the Board must stop rejecting otherwise qualified applicants solely because of errors or omissions in the questionnaire.

Later that month, on October 29, the DOJ requested additional relief, arguing that the Board was now processing registration applications at a slower rate than before. In the months that followed, the DOJ requested access multiple times to the Board's records, which they were granted. On Feb. 4, 1965, the District Court ordered the Board to expedite their review of registration applications, and additionally provided specific other remedies to ensure fair registration procedures. On March 5, 1965, the court issued an order specifying a uniform new form to be used in notifying applicants of their rejection.

We do not have any subsequent records.

The case is now closed. We have limited access to case records and information, and we will update this page if more become available.

Summary Authors

Virginia Weeks (4/8/2018)

People


Judge(s)

Cameron, Benjamin Franklin (Louisiana)

Attorney for Plaintiff

Doar, John (District of Columbia)

Jansen, Vernol R. (District of Columbia)

Landsberg, Brian K. (District of Columbia)

Marshall, Burke (District of Columbia)

Judge(s)

Cameron, Benjamin Franklin (Louisiana)

Rives, Richard Taylor (Alabama)

Thomas, Daniel Holcombe (Alabama)

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Documents in the Clearinghouse

Document

61-02584

Opinion

Nov. 15, 1962

Nov. 15, 1962

Order/Opinion

Order

U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

Sept. 30, 1963

Sept. 30, 1963

Order/Opinion

61-02584

Order

Feb. 4, 1965

Feb. 4, 1965

Order/Opinion

61-02584

Order

March 5, 1965

March 5, 1965

Order/Opinion

61-02584

Order

March 5, 1965

March 5, 1965

Order/Opinion

61-02584

Appendices A Through E for Brief in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Supplemental Relief

None

None

Pleading / Motion / Brief

61-02584

Brief in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Supplemental Relief

None

None

Pleading / Motion / Brief

Docket

Last updated Nov. 14, 2023, 3:02 a.m.

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

Case Details

State / Territory: Alabama

Case Type(s):

Election/Voting Rights

Special Collection(s):

Civil Rights Division Archival Collection

Selma and Early Civil Rights Enforcement

Key Dates

Filing Date: 1961

Closing Date: 1965

Case Ongoing: No

Plaintiffs

Plaintiff Description:

Department of Justice

Plaintiff Type(s):

U.S. Dept of Justice plaintiff

Attorney Organizations:

U.S. Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division

Public Interest Lawyer: Yes

Filed Pro Se: No

Class Action Sought: No

Class Action Outcome: Not sought

Defendants

Registrar (Dallas), County

State of Alabama, State

Case Details

Causes of Action:

Civil Rights Act of 1957/1960, 52 U.S.C. § 10101 (previously 42 U.S.C. § 1971)

Constitutional Clause(s):

Equal Protection

Available Documents:

Injunctive (or Injunctive-like) Relief

Non-settlement Outcome

Any published opinion

Outcome

Prevailing Party: Plaintiff

Nature of Relief:

Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement

Source of Relief:

Litigation

Order Duration: 1963 - None

Content of Injunction:

Discrimination Prohibition

Recordkeeping

Required disclosure

Issues

General:

Record-keeping

Records Disclosure

Test or device

Voting:

Voting: General & Misc.

Voter qualifications

Voter registration rules

Discrimination-basis:

Race discrimination

Race:

Black