GEORGIA STATE CONFERENCE OF THE NAACP, et al., Plaintiffs - Appellees,
FAYETTE COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS, et al., Defendants - Appellants, FAYETTE COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al., Defendants - Appellants
Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. D.C. Docket No. 3:11-cv-00123-TCB.
For Georgia State Conference of The Naacp, Fayette County Branch Naacp, Henry Adams, Terence Clark, Alice Jones, Plaintiffs - Appellees (14-11202, 14-11204): Leah Aden, Ryan Haygood, Natasha M. Korgaonkar, Deuel Ross, NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., New York, NY; Neil Bradley, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, Inc., Atlanta, GA.
For Fayette County Board of Commissioners, STEVE BROWN, in his official capacity, ALLEN MCCARTY, in his official capacity, Fayette County Board of Elections And Voter Registration, TOM SAWYER, in his official capacity, DAVID BARLO, in his official capacity, CHARLES ODDO, in his official capacity, Randy Ognio, Defendants - Appellants (14-11202): Anne Ware Lewis, Frank B. Strickland, Bryan P. Tyson, Strickland Brockington Lewis, LLP, Atlanta, GA; Larry Hugh Chesin, Parks Chesin & Walbert, PC, Atlanta, GA.
For Fayette County Board of Education, BOB TODD, in his official capacity, LEONARD PRESBERG, in his official capacity, BARRY MARCHMAN, in his official capacity, MARION KEY, in her official capacity, Defendants - Appellants (14-11204): David F. Walbert, Larry Hugh Chesin, J. Matthew Maguire Jr., Parks Chesin & Walbert, PC, Atlanta, GA; Phillip Leroy Hartley, Harben Hartley & Hawkins, LLP, Gainesville, GA.
For J. DANIEL COLWELL, in her official capacity, Defendant - Appellant (14-11204): Larry Hugh Chesin, J. Matthew Maguire Jr., Parks Chesin & Walbert, PC, Atlanta, GA; Phillip Leroy Hartley, Harben Hartley & Hawkins, LLP, Gainesville, GA.
Before WILSON and ROSENBAUM, Circuit Judges, and CONWAY,[*] District Judge.
WILSON, Circuit Judge
At the time this suit commenced, no African-American candidate had ever been elected to either the Fayette County Board of Commissioners (BOC) or the Fayette County Board of Education (BOE) in Fayette County, Georgia. The Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Fayette County Branch of the NAACP, and ten individual African-American registered voters residing in Fayette County (collectively, Appellees) averred that Fayette County's at-large election system violated Section Two (§ 2) of the Voting Rights Act (VRA)
by effectively guaranteeing that no African-American would be able to participate in the political process through election to the BOC or the BOE, nor would African-American voters be able to elect representatives of their choice to either entity. Appellees contended that a districting plan including a single majority-minority district would provide African-Americans the opportunity for meaningful political participation and the ability to elect candidates of their choice to both boards.
After considering cross-motions for summary judgment from Appellees and the BOC, the court below entered summary judgment in Appellees' favor, finding the at-large election method used by both the BOC and BOE resulted in impermissible vote dilution. In so doing, the district court failed to notice the BOE that it was considering awarding summary judgment against it; additionally, the court weighed the evidence submitted by the moving parties, accepting the support proffered by Appellees and rejecting the contrary evidence presented by the BOC. Thus, without opining as to the correctness of the court's substantive conclusions, we find that the district erred in rendering its § 2 determination on summary judgment. We therefore vacate and remand the district court's entry of summary judgment against the BOC and the BOE for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.
I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Located in Northwest Georgia, Fayette County has a population of 106,567 and a voting-age population of 78,468, out of which 57,766 (73.6%) voters identify as white, and 15,247 (19.5%) identify as African-American, according to the 2010 decennial census relied on by the parties.
The African-American population is largely concentrated in the northern half of Fayette County. The BOC and the BOE are governing bodies in Fayette County; both boards are comprised of five elected members who each serve staggered, four-year terms. At the time of suit, both the BOC and the BOE used an at-large election system to fill seats. Candidates running for one of the seats had to reside in a geographic district corresponding to a seat number, but to be elected to a seat, the candidate had to win a general election in the county. Consequently, to represent the district in which he or she resided, a candidate had to receive a majority of the votes from the county as a whole.
Despite being the preferred candidates of African-American voters in countywide elections, no African-American candidates had ever been elected to the BOC or the BOE, regardless of the candidates' respective qualifications or party affiliation. Voters' candidate preferences in general elections were racially polarized, with African-American voters preferring African-American candidates and non-African-American voters preferring white candidates. After unsuccessfully advocating for district voting, Appellees filed suit against the BOE and its members, the BOC and its members, and the Fayette County Board of Elections and Voter Registration and its department head. Appellees' sole claim was that Fayette County's at-large method of electing members to the BOC and the BOE constituted vote dilution in violation of § 2 of the VRA.
The Appellees and the BOE immediately began settlement negotiations. On February 20, 2012, Appellees and the BOE filed a motion for approval of a proposed consent decree, requesting that the district court adopt the BOE redistricting plan contained therein (the BOE plan). However, the BOC opposed the consent decree and argued that (1) the remedy to which the BOE and Appellees agreed was not authorized by law, and (2) the district court did not have authority to impose a redistricting plan absent the finding of a § 2 violation. Consequently, the district court ordered the parties to brief the issues and scheduled a hearing on the matter. Prior to the hearing, on May 2, 2012, Appellees and the BOE submitted an amended proposed consent decree, in which the BOE admitted that the at-large election method of electing members violated § 2 of the VRA.
After hearing arguments from all parties, the district court rejected the amended proposed consent decree, as the BOE plan did not include the majority-minority district required to remedy impermissible vote dilution (instead, the BOE plan created a district with an African-American voting-age population of only 46.2%). Following the court's denial of the motion to approve the amended consent decree, Appellees and the BOC proceeded to discovery, with both sides taking multiple depositions. The BOE, although receiving notice of discovery proceedings, did not attend depositions or otherwise participate in discovery. Meanwhile, Appellees filed a 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) motion to certify an interlocutory appeal with regard to the court's decision denying the BOE and Appellees' motion to approve the consent decree.
At the close of discovery, the BOC and Appellees cross-moved for summary judgment (on September 13 and 14, 2012, respectively). By its own terms, Appellees' summary-judgment motion was directed solely against the BOC, as Appellees' § 1292(b) motion regarding the district court's denial of the proposed consent order filed by Appellees and the BOE was still pending. Subsequently, on September 18, 2012, the district court entered an order denying Appellees' § 1292(b) motion. On the same day, in a separate order, the court denied a joint request for a discovery extension previously filed by Appellees and ...