On April 22, 1980, in City of Mobile v. Bolden the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of at-large elections for the three-member city commission in Mobile, Alabama. In so doing, the Court reversed the judgment of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that Mobile's at-large plan impermissibly diluted the electoral influence of black voters in violation of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution. The Supreme Court's decision in Bolden [I] emerged from a sharply divided court. A six-person majority in the case consisted of four justices-Stewart, Burger, Powell, and Rehnquist-who joined in a plurality opinion; Justice Stevens, who concurred in the judgment; and Justice Blackmun, who concurred only in the result. Three justices-White, Brennan, and Marshall-filed dissenting opinions. Although the substantive differences among the three opinions produced by the Court's majority left room for considerable uncertainty regarding the standards for assessing the constitutionality of local at-large systems, the implications of the Bolden [I] decision were fairly obvious. Racial or language minority voters alleging that at-large systems unconstitutionally diluted their electoral influence faced a more significant evidentiary burden than had previously existed; one element of this burden was a showing that an at-large format was created or maintained with racially discriminatory intent by public officials.
Timothy G. O'Rourke,
Constitutional and Statutory Challenges to Local At-Large Elections,
U. Rich. L. Rev.
Available at: http://scholarship.richmond.edu/lawreview/vol17/iss1/3