Case: Gomillion v. Lightfoot

57-cv-00462 | U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama

Filed Date: 1957

Closed Date: Feb. 17, 1961

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Case Summary

This case challenged an Alabama law, Act 140, that redrew Tuskegee’s borders, excluding all but five of the city’s black voters. Prior to this law, activists were making a concerted effort to register more black voters in the city. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court held that federal courts had authority to hear this claim despite municipal boundaries traditionally being exclusively under state control. Following World War II, the number of black registered voters in Tuskegee surged. This was i…

This case challenged an Alabama law, Act 140, that redrew Tuskegee’s borders, excluding all but five of the city’s black voters. Prior to this law, activists were making a concerted effort to register more black voters in the city. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court held that federal courts had authority to hear this claim despite municipal boundaries traditionally being exclusively under state control.

Following World War II, the number of black registered voters in Tuskegee surged. This was in large part due to the expansion of the Tuskegee Institute, a local historically black university. Charles G. Gomillion, a sociology professor and dean at Tuskegee was a driving force in what became the Tuskegee Civic Association which actively encouraged black voter registration. 

In 1957, the Alabama legislature passed Act 140 which redefined the city limits of Tuskegee. As shown by this map, Tuskegee’s boundaries changed from a square to a 28-sided figure. Before this change, the town had around 5,397 black residents, about 400 of whom were qualified to vote. After the change, at most five black qualified voters remained within city limits. Act 140 did not remove a single qualified white voter or resident from the city. The act was written by state Senator Samuel Martin Engelhardt Jr., who also served as executive secretary of the White Citizens’ Council of Alabama, a white supremacist group. Notably, Act 140 cut the Tuskegee Institute (today known as the Tuskegee University) out of the city limits. Prior to filing suit, Prof. Gomillion along with other activists launched a protest which included a boycott of white-owned businesses.

Alongside Act 140, Macon County voter registration officials were discriminating against black applicants. This included black applicants being denied assistance, lengthier application requirements, and a failure to send notices for rejected applications. Black applicants were denied for trivial mistakes which white applicants were not. In fact, not a single white application was rejected between 1957 and 1960.

Soon after the enactment of Act 140, twelve former black residents of Tuskegee, Alabama filed a class action complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. All twelve plaintiffs were qualified voters in Tuskegee prior to Act 140. Suing under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, plaintiffs alleged Act 140 violated both the Fifteenth Amendment’s bar against abridging the right to vote on account of race and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. Plaintiffs were represented by the NAACP and two major black civil rights attorneys Robert L. Carter, general counsel for the NAACP, and Fred D. Gray, a Black attorney from Montgomery active in the civil rights movement. Plaintiffs sought both declaratory and injunctive relief against Act 140. Defendants included various Tuskegee and Macon County officials. District Judge Frank Minis Johnson Jr. was assigned the case.

On October 29, 1958, the District Court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss (167 F.Supp. 405). Despite likening Tuskegee’s new borders to a “sea dragon,” the court decided that it had no authority to declare Act 140 invalid. The court reasoned that Alabama’s constitution granted the legislature absolute power over setting municipal boundaries. From this, they cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Doyle v. Continental Insurance Company (94 U.S. 535) that “[i]f the State has the power to do an act, its intention or the reason by which it is influenced in doing it cannot be inquired into.” Further, the court reasoned that motives vary from one individual to another. As such, a multi-member body like the state legislature could not have a single unified motive. Plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

On September 15, 1959, the Fifth Circuit voted 2-1 to affirm (270 F.2d 594). The court reiterated the absolute authority granted to the Alabama legislature to draw municipal boundaries by the state constitution. To quote Hunter v. Pittsburgh (207 U.S. 161), it is “not the wisdom or policy of legislation but only the power of the legislature, [that] is a fit subject for consideration by the courts.” Colegrove v. Green, (328 U.S. 549) also held that federal courts should not decide inherently political questions. That case involved districts with disproportionate populations (i.e. 100K vs. 900K) due to the state’s failure to redistrict. Under this precedent, plaintiffs had failed to claim any part of the Alabama constitution was violated. In the absence of any facial racial or class discrimination, Act 140 could not be held unconstitutional on the theories advanced by plaintiffs.

Circuit Judge John Robert Brown wrote a lengthy dissent. He agreed that municipal boundaries are an area typically exclusively under state power. However, he emphasized that under the Supremacy Clause, the U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land, notwithstanding the laws of any state. In contrast, the Fifth Circuit’s decision had effectively rendered the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments impotent. He also listed many other areas traditionally left to states where the U.S. Supreme Court had found unconstitutional conduct. Judge Brown also invoked the words of Chief Justice William Howard Taft from Bailey v. Drexel (259 U.S. 20), where the court refused to be blind to what “all others can see and understand.” To Judge Brown, the racial intent was obvious from the 28-sided borders of Tuskegee. Finally, he emphasized that there can be no relief at the polls for those who cannot register and vote.” If plaintiffs were being disenfranchised voting in legislative elections and could not turn to the courts, where else could they turn?

Plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari on March 21, 1960 (362 U.S. 916). 

On November 14, 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 9-0 to reverse the Fifth Circuit and remanded the case (364 U.S. 339). Justice Frankfurter wrote the majority opinion. Act 140 violated the Fifteenth Amendment despite the Alabama Legislature’s absolute authority to set municipal boundaries. In sum, states may not exercise their powers to circumvent federally protected rights. The lower courts essentially allowed nullification of federally protected rights so long as it was “cloaked in the garb of the realignment of political subdivisions.” Additionally, defendants had failed to even present one countervailing function for the new borders. 364 U.S. 339.

Justice Frankfurter distinguished two cases which the defendants had relied. First, Colegrove v. Green (328 U.S. 549). The court held they had no jurisdiction as it was an inherently political question. In the present case, Frankfurter recast the issue as a Fifteenth Amendment case to avoid the political question doctrine from Colegrove. Additionally, Colegrove presented a case of vote dilution due to generalized state inaction. The present case dealt with a state’s affirmative action to deprive a specific class of persons the right to vote. In 1962, Colegrove was overruled by Baker v. Carr, (369 U.S. 186). which held that redistricting is a justiciable question under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Second, Hunter v. Pittsburgh. The lower courts had erred in applying the principles broadly from that case as its holding was limited to the tax implications of municipal boundary changes.

Justice Whittaker wrote a concurring opinion. While he agreed with the court’s decision, he would have based the opinion primarily on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. He reasoned that there is not a right to vote in a particular jurisdiction. But completely fencing out black Tuskegee residents was clearly an unlawful segregation and thus a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

On February 17, 1961, the District Court permanently enjoined Act 140. 6 Race Rel. L. Rep. 241. Defendants had answered the complaint. Therein, they had admitted to Act 140’s discriminatory effect, but not to any discriminatory intent. As such, the court invoked Justice Frankfurter’s statement that if allegations of intent remained uncontradicted, “the conclusion would be irresistible . . . a mathematical demonstration” of the legislature’s discriminatory intent. With the injunction, Tuskegee’s original borders were restored. 

Concurrently, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a separate case, United States v. Alabama, addressing Macon County’s other discriminatory practices regarding black voter registration. The U.S. Department of Justice filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama following a federal investigation. In 1961, after an appeal to and remand from the U.S. Supreme Court, the District Court found “overwhelming” evidence of voter registration discrimination (192 F. Supp. 677). The court issued an injunction to quell the discriminatory conduct. The injunction also required the county replace several dozen names on the voter rolls and take affirmative steps to correct violations. 

Summary Authors

Eric Gripp (3/7/2023)

Related Cases

United States v. Alabama, Middle District of Alabama (1960)

People


Judge(s)

Frankfurter, Felix (District of Columbia)

Attorney for Plaintiff
Attorney for Defendant

Granucci, Robert R. (California)

Expert/Monitor/Master/Other

Carter, Robert Lee (New York)

Flannery, J. Harold (District of Columbia)

Friedman, Daniel Mortimer (District of Columbia)

show all people

Documents in the Clearinghouse

Document

60-00032

Alabama Law Act No. 140 Exhibits C, D, and E

Supreme Court of the United States

July 15, 1957

July 15, 1957

Statute/Ordinance/Regulation

57-cv-00462

Opinion

Oct. 29, 1958

Oct. 29, 1958

Order/Opinion

167 F.Supp. 167

57-cv-00462

[Opinion]

Oct. 29, 1958

Oct. 29, 1958

Order/Opinion

167 F.Supp. 167

59-17589

USCA Opinion

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

Sept. 15, 1959

Sept. 15, 1959

Order/Opinion

270 F.2d 270

60-00032

Brown-Carter Letter

No Court

Jan. 26, 1960

Jan. 26, 1960

Correspondence

60-00032

Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae

Supreme Court of the United States

Aug. 1, 1960

Aug. 1, 1960

Pleading / Motion / Brief

60-00032

Brief for Petitioners

Supreme Court of the United States

Oct. 20, 1960

Oct. 20, 1960

Pleading / Motion / Brief

60-00032

Opinion of the Court

Supreme Court of the United States

Nov. 14, 1960

Nov. 14, 1960

Order/Opinion

364 U.S. 364

60-00032

On Writ of Certiorari

Supreme Court of the United States

Nov. 14, 1960

Nov. 14, 1960

Order/Opinion

364 U.S. 364

57-cv-00462

Opinion, Order and Judgment

Gomillion v. Rutherford

Feb. 17, 1961

Feb. 17, 1961

Order/Opinion

Resources

Docket

Last updated May 4, 2024, 3:10 a.m.

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

Case Details

State / Territory: Alabama

Case Type(s):

Election/Voting Rights

Key Dates

Filing Date: 1957

Closing Date: Feb. 17, 1961

Case Ongoing: No

Plaintiffs

Plaintiff Description:

Twelve former black residents and voters of Tuskegee, Alabama who no longer lived in the city due to Alabama redrawing of the city's borders.

Plaintiff Type(s):

Private Plaintiff

Attorney Organizations:

NAACP Legal Defense Fund

Public Interest Lawyer: Yes

Filed Pro Se: No

Class Action Sought: Yes

Class Action Outcome: Granted

Defendants

City of Tuskegee (Macon), City

State of Alabama, State

Defendant Type(s):

Jurisdiction-wide

Case Details

Causes of Action:

42 U.S.C. § 1983

Constitutional Clause(s):

Due Process

Equal Protection

Available Documents:

Injunctive (or Injunctive-like) Relief

Non-settlement Outcome

Any published opinion

U.S. Supreme Court merits opinion

Outcome

Prevailing Party: Plaintiff

Nature of Relief:

Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement

Source of Relief:

Litigation

Content of Injunction:

State Statute Struck Down

Order Duration: 1961 - None

Issues

Discrimination Basis:

Race discrimination

Affected Race(s):

Black

Voting:

Redistricting/district composition

Vote dilution

Voter qualifications