KING, Circuit Judge:
Plaintiffs-appellants Westwego Citizens for Better Government appeal from the judgment of the district court dismissing their class-action suit under section 2 et seq. of the Voting Rights Act. For the reasons set forth below, we vacate the judgment of the district court and remand this case for specific findings of fact and conclusions of law.
Westwego is a small city located in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana with a population of 12,663 persons of whom 1,466 — or 11.6% — are black. Pursuant to Louisiana's Lawrason Act, Westwego is governed by a mayor and Board of Aldermen. La.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 33:321 et seq. (West 1988). The five aldermen are elected on an at-large basis and also serve as coordinators of five city departments. While there is no prohibition of "bullet" or "single-shot" voting, there is a majority vote requirement. It is apparently undisputed that no black candidate has ever run for the Board of Aldermen.
As a remedy for the allegedly unlawful dilution of minority votes, plaintiffs proposed two districting plans for Westwego — one which would retain the present five-member
The trial was initially postponed, pending the Supreme Court's decision in Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 106 S.Ct. 2752, 92 L.Ed.2d 25 (1986) — the Court's first case involving the 1982 amendments to section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court issued its decision on June 30, 1986. At the conclusion of a two-day bench trial, the district judge dismissed the case, for reasons stated orally at the close of evidence. Appellants filed a timely notice of appeal, asserting that the district court erred in dismissing the case.
In order to review the district court's judgment, it is essential that we have before us findings of fact and conclusions of law which adequately reflect the bases of the district court's decision. Before we can consider appellants' other claims of error in the district court's decision, we must therefore decide whether we have in this case a sufficient foundation for appellate review.
A. Adequacy of District Court's Findings
The district court's factual findings regarding section 2 claims and the ultimate determination of whether vote dilution has occurred are ordinarily subject to the clearly erroneous standard of review. Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a); Gingles, 478 U.S. at 79, 106 S.Ct. at 2781; Citizens for a Better Gretna v. City of Gretna, 834 F.2d 496, 498 & n. 4 (5th Cir.1987). However, Rule 52(a) also requires that such findings "provide a sufficiently definite predicate for proper appellate review." Curtis v. Commissioner, 623 F.2d 1047, 1051 (5th Cir.1980) (quoting Hydrospace-Challenger, Inc. v. Tracor/MAS, Inc., 520 F.2d 1030, 1034 (5th Cir.1975)). We have stressed repeatedly the special need for detailed findings of fact in vote dilution cases:
In Velasquez, we found it necessary to remand the case to the district court for further findings because, despite an otherwise long and detailed opinion, the court failed "to take note of substantial contrary evidence." Id. at 1021.
In the instant case, the district court dismissed the case without providing written findings of fact or conclusions of law. While Rule 52(a) provides that "[i]t will be sufficient if the findings of fact and conclusions of law are stated orally and recorded in open court following the close of the evidence," the findings must still be sufficiently specific to provide a basis for the judgment and for meaningful appellate review of the decision.
The district court's findings in this case are manifestly inadequate. The district court not only failed "to take note of substantial contrary evidence" as in Velasquez, it also failed to specify on which
Because we find that the district court failed to explain its reasoning with sufficient particularity, we must remand this case to the district court so that it may make the specific findings of fact and conclusions of law necessary to support a judgment.
B. Errors of Law
While we cannot render any decision on the merits of appellants' voting dilution claim, we will address the errors of law which the district court is alleged to have made in order to provide guidance for the proceedings on remand.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, as amended,
The question which the trial court must answer in a section 2 case "is whether `as a result of the challenged practice or structure plaintiffs do not have an equal opportunity to participate in the political processes and to elect candidates of their choice.'" Gingles, 478 U.S. at 44, 106 S.Ct. at 2763 (quoting Senate Report).
It has been widely recognized that "multimember district and at-large voting schemes may operate to minimize or cancel out the voting strength of racial minorities in the voting population." Id. at 47, 106 S.Ct. at 2765. Such schemes are not, however, per se violations of section 2. Id. at 46, 106 S.Ct. at 2764. Rather, the determination whether an at-large election system such as Westwego's violates section 2 "`depends upon a searching practical evaluation of the past and present reality' ... and on a `functional view of the political process.'" Id. at 45, 106 S.Ct. at 2763.
The Senate Report enumerates several factors that generally are relevant to the evaluation of section 2 claims:
Typical factors include:
S.Rep. No. 417, 97th Cong., 2d Sess. 28-29 (1982), reprinted in 1982 U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 177, 206-07.
In Gingles, the Supreme Court clarified that "[w]hile many or all of the factors listed in the Senate Report may be relevant" to a vote dilution challenge to an at-large electoral system, "the use of multimember districts generally will not impede the ability of minority voters to elect representatives of their choice," unless "a bloc voting majority [would] usually be able to defeat candidates supported by a politically cohesive, geographically insular minority group." 478 U.S. at 48-49, 106 S.Ct. at 2765-2766; Campos v. City of Baytown, 840 F.2d 1240, 1243 (5th Cir.1988). Under Gingles, plaintiffs must establish first, that the group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district;
Appellants assert that the district court misapplied the governing law in several critical respects. Specifically, they argue (1) that the district court improperly held that a greater showing of discriminatory results is required in voting dilution cases involving the electoral systems of small city governments as opposed to larger political bodies; (2) that the court improperly refused to consider evidence of bloc voting derived from elections other than aldermanic elections; (3) that the court improperly considered factors which are irrelevant to the determination of a section 2 violation; and (4) that the court generally failed to apply properly the Act's "totality of the circumstances" test.
We address each of appellants' claims in turn.
1. Applicability of the Voting Rights Act to Local Elections.
Appellants object that the district court erroneously held that small municipal governments are subject to less stringent standards under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act than are larger political subdivisions. The following comments by the district court are the source of appellants' concern:
While it is not clear whether the district court in fact applied a different standard of proof for small city governments, the court does imply that the Gingles decision, which involved the reapportionment of state legislative districts, does not apply with equal force to at-large municipal elections.
There is absolutely no authority for this proposition. Congress clearly contemplated that city governments would be subject to Section 2 and created no exception for small political subdivisions.
To the extent, therefore, that the district court believed that a less stringent standard applies to the electoral systems of small municipalities, that view is erroneous. The district court should be guided on remand by our decisions in Citizens for a Better Gretna and Overton v. City of Austin, 871 F.2d 529 (5th Cir.1989).
2. Evidence Demonstrating Racial Bloc Voting.
Appellants argue further that the district court erroneously declined to consider evidence of racial bloc voting derived from elections other than the aldermanic elections.
Again, although the basis of the district court's decision is not entirely clear, it does appear that the court relied heavily on the fact that there had never been a black
To the extent that these comments indicate that the district court believed that plaintiffs could not, as a matter of law, make out a vote dilution claim based on evidence of racially polarized voting drawn from elections other than the aldermanic elections themselves, this view is incorrect under both Gingles and Citizens for a Better Gretna.
In the instant case, there are no statistics available for a Westwego aldermanic election involving a black candidate because there have been no black candidates. The Supreme Court, however, also contemplated that "[w]here a minority group has never been able to sponsor a candidate," plaintiffs could rely on other evidence to prove unequal access to the electoral process.
Plaintiffs relied in this case not only on evidence drawn from the voting patterns of Westwego precincts in the 1984 presidential primary elections and in state-wide elections, but also on evidence from elections involving black candidates in parish-wide contests. Following our decision in Citizens for a Better Gretna, the district court should decide whether this evidence qualifies as a sufficiently "local appraisal" to establish some degree of racial bloc voting by Westwego's voters and should base its ultimate conclusion upon the strength of that evidence, considered in the context of the "totality of the circumstances" test. In other words, plaintiffs may not be denied relief simply because the absence of black candidates has created a sparsity of data on racially polarized voting in purely indigenous elections. Rather, plaintiffs' claims should stand or fall based upon the probative value of the evidence of racial bloc
3. Factors Irrelevant to the Vote Dilution Claim.
Appellants next contend that the district court relied improperly on several factors that are not relevant to the totality of the circumstances test mandated by section 2. Specifically, they point to comments by the district court referring to the absence of any discriminatory purpose behind Westwego's adoption of the at-large method of electing aldermen,
Again, while it is not clear to what extent the district court in fact relied on these factors, we address the appropriateness of these considerations in order to avoid unnecessary confusion on remand.
First, while the district court did not treat the issue of discriminatory intent as dispositive, we caution that the explicit purpose of the 1982 amendment was to remove the requirement that in order to establish a violation of section 2, plaintiffs must show that the challenged electoral procedure or practice was installed or maintained for a discriminatory purpose. Gingles, 478 U.S. at 35, 106 S.Ct. at 2759; Campos, 840 F.2d at 1242; Jones, 727 F.2d at 378. Congress clearly intended that a violation of section 2 "could be proved by showing discriminatory effect alone." Gingles, 478 U.S. at 35, 106 S.Ct. at 2759.
With respect to the district court's references to the longevity of the Westwego system, we simply caution again that the focal point of the district court's inquiry must be whether the electoral system — however long it has been in place — produces discriminatory results.
Finally, the district court observed in closing that because Westwego aldermen also are responsible for administering certain city departments, a change to a single-member district system could require a costly reorganization of the city's administrative structure. We note, with the Eleventh Circuit, that "[n]owhere in the language of Section 2 nor in the legislative history does Congress condition the applicability of Section 2 on the function performed by an elected official." Dillard v. Crenshaw County, 831 F.2d 246, 250-51 (11th Cir.1986); cf. Chisom, 839 F.2d at 1062. In Dillard, the court evaluated a proposed remedy to a prior finding that the
The question presented here is clearer than that presented in Dillard. We need not address whether these considerations could play a role in the process of crafting an appropriate remedy once a violation of section 2 has been found. We note only that Congress did not contemplate that such considerations would play a role in determining whether there has been a violation of section 2. A contrary holding would allow government bodies to defeat voting rights claims simply by attaching administrative duties to elected offices. This would frustrate Congress' aim of eliminating barriers to the political participation of minorities on grounds wholly irrelevant to the determination required by section 2 — namely, whether the electoral system at issue in fact denies minorities equal opportunities to participate in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice.
Therefore, the district court should not consider this factor in determining whether Westwego's at-large electoral system violates section 2.
4. The Totality of the Circumstances Test.
Finally, appellants maintain that the district court appears to have erred in its consideration of several elements that are a part of the totality of the circumstances test. Specifically, appellants note that (1) a history of discrimination, not simply present discrimination, is relevant to a finding of vote dilution, (2) that evidence of socioeconomic inequalities between black and white citizens is relevant to establishing a lack of access to the political system, (3) the court must consider electoral practices which may enhance the dilution of minority votes, and (4) the court must evaluate critically the justifications offered for the retention of an at-large system of electing aldermen.
With regard to appellants' first concern, the district court stated:
To the extent that these comments indicate that the district court judge disregarded historical evidence of discrimination, based upon his belief that there has been no racial discrimination in Westwego or in the State of Louisiana in the past 15 to 20 years, the district court may have misconceived the role of historical evidence of discrimination in a section 2 claim. The concern underpinning section 2 "is that a certain electoral law, practice or structure interacts with social or historical conditions to cause an inequality in the opportunity enjoyed by black and white voters to elect their preferred representatives." Gingles, 478 U.S. at 47, 106 S.Ct. at 2765 (emphasis added). The first factor listed in the Senate Report is "the extent of any history of official discrimination in the state or political subdivision that touched the right of the members of the minority group to register, to vote, or otherwise to participate in the democratic process." S.Rep. supra, at 28, 1982 U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News, at 206 (emphasis added) Thus, Congress was concerned not only with present discrimination, but with the vestiges of discrimination which may interact with present political structures to perpetuate
The following comments by the court are the source of appellants' second concern:
Again, it appears that the district court may have misconceived the role of evidence of socioeconomic inequalities in the totality of the circumstances test. The point is not whether changing the at-large electoral system would eliminate such inequalities. Rather, Congress and the courts have recognized that "political participation by minorities tends to be depressed where minority group members suffer effects of prior discrimination such as inferior education, poor employment opportunities, and low incomes." Gingles, 478 U.S. at 69, 106 S.Ct. at 2776. Evidence of socioeconomic inequalities therefore "may be probative of unequal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect representatives." Id. The court may not disregard Congress' policy judgment regarding the relevance of these factors based simply upon a belief that these factors are widespread or may not be remedied by the relief sought by plaintiffs. On remand then, the district court should consider this evidence in the light intended by Congress.
Third, appellants argue that the district court did not adequately consider other aspects of Westwego's electoral system which could enhance the alleged dilution of minority votes. Specifically, the district court stated that:
The fact that majority vote requirements may be commonplace does not alter the fact that Congress clearly did conclude that such provisions could serve to further dilute the voting strength of minorities. See id. at 56, 106 S.Ct. at 2770; see also Jones, 727 F.2d at 383 (finding that majority vote requirement further submerges political minorities). Again, we caution that the district court may not eliminate a factor from the totality of the circumstances test simply because the court does not agree with Congress' policy judgment.
Finally, appellants note that the district court did not evaluate the reasons provided by the City for maintaining its at-large electoral system. Congress did note that the tenuousness of the policy underlying such a system may be probative of a violation of section 2. S.Rep., supra, at 29, 1982 U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News, at 207. To the extent then that plaintiffs argue that Westwego's reasons for maintaining its present system of electing aldermen are tenuous, the court should address
We emphasize in conclusion that we do not express any opinion about the merits of plaintiffs' claims. We may not do so until we have before us a decision of the district court which sets forth with sufficient particularity its factual findings and the reasoning upon which its ultimate conclusion is based. As the basis of the district court's judgment is unclear, we have addressed appellants' allegations of legal error simply to provide guidance to the district court on remand — we cannot determine from this record the extent to which any of the asserted errors may have affected the district court's judgment. Accordingly, the judgment of the district court is VACATED and the case REMANDED for specific findings of fact and conclusions of law consistent with this opinion.
If, upon evaluation of the evidence on remand, the district court specifically finds that appellants' evidence establishes that Westwego's black residents could constitute a majority in a single-member district without increasing the number of aldermen, then the propriety of such an increase need not be considered unless this case reaches the remedy stage of litigation.
We note, however, that at oral argument a question was raised as to whether there would in fact be a black majority of voting age in a single district under the five-aldermen plan. We have noted that such evidence may be "critical" to a vote dilution claim. See Houston v. Haley, 869 F.2d 807, 808 (5th Cir.1989) (on rehearing). Because the record is unclear on this point, we direct the district court to make this determination on remand. If it appears that no single district with a black majority of voting age could be created without increasing the number of aldermen, the district court will have to address the question of whether this situation would defeat plaintiffs' threshold showing or simply affect the remedy to which plaintiffs would be entitled if a violation of section 2 is found. See East Jefferson Coalition For Leadership & Development v. Jefferson Parish, 691 F.Supp. 991, 1005-08 (E.D.La.1988) (goes to remedy only).
Moreover, the Senate Report explicitly addressed the impact of the amendment on city at-large electoral systems. While the Report acknowledged concerns that "`court ordered restructuring' would be the `likely' outcome under the results test," the Senate Judiciary Committee concluded, as did the House Judiciary Committee, "that the amendment to section 2 is careful, sound, and necessary, and will not result in wholesale invalidation of electoral structures." S.Rep. No. 417, 97th Cong., 2d Sess. 34-35 (1982), reprinted in 1982 U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 117, 212-13. The Report does not suggest that a different standard should be applied to cities, but rather reflects the view that fair application of section 2 will not be unduly onerous for city governments.
As we noted in the Gretna case, when there are only white candidates to choose from it is "virtually unavoidable that certain white candidates would be supported by a large percentage of ... black voters." 834 F.2d at 502. Evidence of black support for white candidates in an all-white field, however, tells us nothing about the tendency of white bloc voting to defeat black candidates. Id. This is precisely why we have held that evidence from other elections may be used to support a vote dilution claim where evidence from the specific electoral system at issue is sparse, see discussion in text supra, and why the district court must consider carefully the relative probative value of each type of evidence.
The Eleventh Circuit's conclusion that evidence from "other elections" was not relevant rests upon a fact-specific assessment of the relevance of particular elections — both city and statewide — to a case against the county. Carrollton does not stand for the proposition that plaintiffs may never rely on data from "exogenous" elections. Rather, it stands for the proposition that plaintiffs' evidence is not necessarily insufficient because it excludes such data where the data are, for specific reasons, of limited probative value. Carrollton is therefore entirely consistent with our holding that evidence from other elections should not be deemed irrelevant per se to plaintiffs' claims, but must be evaluated according to its particular probative value.
The district court does state at one point that "there is evidence of polarization in other elections, testified to by the expert brought by plaintiff, a great deal of which ... I credit." Elsewhere, however, the court states "that there is indeed no evidence of bloc voting in an all black election. That is to say, you don't have any election where the blacks voted cohesively for a candidate."
We urge the district court on remand to explain specifically which evidence it finds credible and which it does not, to provide reasons for its conclusions, and then to evaluate the strength of that evidence, along with other relevant factors, within the framework of the totality of the circumstances test.