APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF MISSOURI.
Blackmun, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.
JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.
The Constitution of the State of Missouri provides that the governments of the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County may be reorganized by a vote of the electorate of the city and county upon a plan of reorganization drafted by a "board of freeholders." Appellants contend that this provision violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution because it requires that every member of this official board own real property. The Supreme Court of Missouri, without disputing appellants' premise that ownership of real property is a prerequisite for appointment to the board of freeholders, ruled that "the Equal Protection Clause has no relevancy here" because the board "exercises no general governmental powers." 757 S. W. 2d 591, 595 (1988). This ruling reflects a significant misreading of our precedents, and, accordingly, we reverse.
In 1987, pursuant to Art. VI, § 30, of the Missouri Constitution,*fn1 a sufficient number of voters signed petitions "to
establish a board of St. Louis area property owners (freeholders)" to consider the reorganization of "governmental structures and responsibilities" for the city and county. App. 20, 30. As a result, under § 30, the city's mayor and the county executive were required each to appoint nine members to this board, and the Governor was required to appoint one.*fn2
After the mayor had chosen nine individuals based on several criteria, including a history of community service and demonstrated leadership ability, he was informed by the city's counsel that ownership of real property was a prerequisite for board membership. One of the persons selected by the mayor, the Reverend Paul C. Reinert,*fn3 did not own real property. He was removed from the mayor's list and replaced with an appointee who satisfied the real-property requirement.
The county executive similarly was told by the county's counsel that real property ownership was a necessary condition for board membership. The Governor also considered
real property ownership as a necessary qualification. Thus, all 19 members appointed to the board of freeholders in 1987 owned real property, as was inevitable given the prevailing belief that § 30 required this result.
In November 1987, appellants Robert J. Quinn, Jr., and Patricia J. Kampsen filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri a class-action complaint on behalf of all Missouri voters who did not own real property. Appellants claimed that § 30 violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment on its face, insofar as it required ownership of real property in order to serve on the board that was to consider proposals for reorganizing the St. Louis city and county governments. Quinn v. Missouri, 681 F. Supp. 1422, 1433 (1988). Appellants also claimed that § 30 violated the Equal Protection Clause as applied, because in this instance "appointment to the board [of freeholders] was actually limited to those who were ascertained to be owners of real property." Ibid. Relying on this Court's decisions in Turner v. Fouche, 396 U.S. 346 (1970), and Chappelle v. Greater Baton Rouge Airport Dist., 431 U.S. 159 (1977), appellants asserted that the requirement that members of the board own real property -- whether contained within § 30 itself or resulting from a misinterpretation of that provision -- is not rationally related to any legitimate state purpose.
Appellants' federal-court complaint, as amended, named as defendants the mayor, the county executive, the Governor, and the members of the board of freeholders, as well as the State of Missouri itself. These defendants, all appellees here, in turn sued appellants in a Missouri Circuit Court for a declaratory judgment that § 30 does not violate the Federal Constitution. Appellants counterclaimed in the state court, raising the same claims they presented in their federal-court complaint.
Once the property qualification issue became embroiled in litigation, the official view of § 30 changed. Whereas the mayor, the county executive, and the Governor all had assumed during the appointment process that ownership of real property was a prerequisite for board membership, they (together with the other appellees) have argued in court that the use of the term "freeholder" in § 30 -- contrary to its generally accepted meaning -- does not entail a condition of property ownership. Because § 30(a) states that "a board of freeholders" shall consist of "nine . . . electors of the city and nine electors of the county and one . . . elector of some other county," appellees contend that the only qualification necessary for appointment to a board of freeholders is that one be an "elector" of a relevant jurisdiction.
Based on their contention that the meaning of "freeholder" in § 30 is an unsettled question of state law, appellees urged the Federal District Court to abstain from adjudicating the merits of appellants' complaint while the state-court proceeding was pending. The District Court refused to abstain, 681 F. Supp., at 1427-1432, finding appellees' interpretation of the term "freeholder" to be "strained at best," id., at 1430, and contrary both to the generally recognized meaning of the term and to its use in Missouri decisional law. Reaching the merits of appellants' constitutional claim, the court agreed with appellants that Turner and Chappelle required the conclusion that § 30 (construed to contain a property requirement) violates the Equal Protection Clause. 681 F. Supp., at 1433-1436. The Federal Court of Appeals, after a preliminary order, see 839 F.2d 425 (CA8 1988), reversed, holding that the District Court should have abstained. App. to Juris. Statement 61; 855 F.2d 856 (CA8 1988).
Thereafter, in an unpublished memorandum, the State Circuit Court adopted appellees' interpretation of § 30. Although in property law ...