Board of Estimate of City of New York v. Morris (1989)

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Case Summary

Morris and others who lived and voted in Brooklyn, the most populous borough of New York City, claimed that the method of electing members of the Board of Estimate violated the Equal Protection Clause, because representation was not proportional to population. The trial court found for Morris. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and the City then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Court's Decision

The Supreme Court ruled that the composition of the Board violated the Equal Protection Clause, because each borough has equal representation despite wide disparities in population. Justice Byron White wrote for the six-judge majority. Three other justices concurred in the result but differed with specific parts of the analysis.

Justice White began by observing that the constitutional rule of “one-person, one-vote“ applies to local government as well as to State and congressional elections. He then reviewed the functions of the Board of Estimate-which include a role in formulating New York City's budget of over $25 billion, plus management of city property, setting city salaries, and granting all city contracts-to show that the Board exercises significant legislative functions. The Board's “powers are general enough and have sufficient impact throughout the district to require that elections to the body comply with equal protection strictures.“

The Court rejected the city's argument that the special structure of the Board was “essential to the successful government ofâ¦the City of New Yorkâ¦[because it] accommodates natural and politica boundaries as well as local interests.“ Although the Court did not say that these political and geographical interests could never be considered, it held that they would not justify the large deviation in voting strength that was present in the case.

More on the Case

As a result of the decision in Morris, New York City modified its Charter to eliminate the Board of Estimate as a governmental body. Many of the Board's powers were transferred to the Mayor; the City Council was expanded and its powers were enlarged as well. The role of the boroughs in municipal government was reduced.

Other localities have found creative ways to structure their elective bodies in compliance with Morris while preserving geographical and political boundaries. Delaware County is one of New York's sixty-two counties, with a 1990 census population of about 50,000 spread over nineteen towns. The smallest town, Bovina, had 550 residents, the largest, Sidney, had 6,667. The County is governed by a nineteen-person Board of Supervisors, with one member elected from each town. However, unlike the situation in Morris, Delaware County gave each Board member a weighted vote that closely matches the relative population in his or her town. For example, Sidney has about 12 times the population of Bovina, so Sidney's representative is allocated approximately 12 times the voting power. This arrangement was found constitutional under the Morris analysis by the United States Court of Appeals in Roxbury Taxpayers Alliance v. Delaware County Board of Supervisors, 1996.

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