City of Mobile v. Bolden

446 U.S. 55 (1980)

Quick Summary

Wiley Bolden (plaintiff) challenged Mobile’s at-large voting system on behalf of Black citizens, asserting it infringed upon their constitutional rights. The City of Mobile (defendant) operated under a three-member commission elected citywide. After lower courts ruled the system unconstitutional, the case ascended to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court focused on whether there was intentional discrimination in the voting system. Ultimately, the Court reversed prior rulings, finding no evidence of discriminatory intent and thus no violation of constitutional amendments.

Facts of the Case

Wiley Bolden (plaintiff), representing Mobile’s Black citizens, contested this method, arguing that it diluted the voting power of minorities, contravening the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The conflict arose from the at-large voting system used to elect commissioners in Mobile, Alabama.

No Black citizens had been elected to the city commission under this scheme. The district court sided with Bolden, declaring the system unconstitutional and mandating a change to single-member districts. This decision was upheld by the court of appeals, prompting the City of Mobile (defendant) to appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Wiley Bolden filed a class-action lawsuit against the City of Mobile, alleging the at-large voting system violated constitutional amendments.
  2. The district court ruled in favor of Bolden, finding the electoral system unconstitutional.
  3. The court of appeals affirmed the district court’s judgment.
  4. The City of Mobile appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the at-large voting system used by the City of Mobile, Alabama, violated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments by diluting the voting strength of Black citizens.

Rule of Law

The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments prohibit purposeful discrimination in voting based on race. To establish a violation, there must be evidence of a discriminatory intent behind the election system.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court analyzed whether Mobile’s at-large voting system was purposefully discriminatory against Black voters. The Court reiterated that mere disproportional impact was not enough to prove a constitutional violation; there must be evidence of intentional discrimination. It was found that Black citizens in Mobile could register and vote without hindrance and there were no barriers for Black candidates to run for office.

The history of racial discrimination in Alabama, while significant, did not automatically render the current electoral system unconstitutional without proof of current discriminatory intent. Therefore, the Court concluded that the appellants did not violate the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendments as no discriminatory purpose in the electoral system was established.


The United States Supreme Court reversed the lower courts’ decisions, holding that Mobile’s at-large voting system did not violate the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendments because there was no proven discriminatory purpose behind it.

Key Takeaways

  1. At-large voting systems are not unconstitutional per se; evidence of intentional discrimination is required for a constitutional violation.
  2. The mere lack of proportional representation of minorities does not establish a violation of the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendments.
  3. The history of discrimination alone is insufficient to prove a current unconstitutional electoral practice without evidence of a present discriminatory purpose.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes intentional discrimination in voting systems under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments?

Intentional discrimination in voting systems occurs when there is purposeful action or policies designed to deny or abridge the right to vote based on race or ethnicity. This requires proof that the system was structured with the intent to discriminate, not just that it has a disparate impact on certain groups.

  • For example: A law that requires voter ID may be enacted under the guise of preventing fraud, but if it is shown through legislative history and impact analysis that the true intent was to suppress minority voters, this could constitute intentional discrimination.

How might a court determine whether electoral practices have discriminatory intent?

A court might evaluate historical context, specific circumstances surrounding the implementation of the practice, legislative or administrative history, and direct or circumstantial evidence indicating a discriminatory purpose in the adoption of the electoral practice.

  • For example: If a state passes a redistricting plan immediately following a rise in minority population likely to affect election outcomes, and if there is no clear rationale besides diluting minority votes, a court might infer discriminatory intent.

What is required for a plaintiff to succeed in a claim of vote dilution under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments?

To succeed in a vote dilution claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the election process is not equally open to participation by members of a racial or language minority group because its members have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice. They must show evidence of intentional discrimination in the design of the electoral system.

  • For example: Proof might include instances where boundaries are drawn so as to segregate voters by race or where systems are altered after minority candidates win elections, explicitly to diminish their future success.


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