313 U.S. 299 (1941), 618, United States v. Classic

Docket Nº:No. 618
Citation:313 U.S. 299, 61 S.Ct. 1031, 85 L.Ed. 1368
Party Name:United States v. Classic
Case Date:May 26, 1941
Court:United States Supreme Court

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313 U.S. 299 (1941)

61 S.Ct. 1031, 85 L.Ed. 1368

United States



No. 618

United States Supreme Court

May 26, 1941

Argued April 7, 1941




1. Review under the Criminal Appeals Act of a judgment sustaining a demurrer to an indictment is confined to the questions of statutory construction and validity decided by the District Court. P. 309.

2. In Louisiana, a primary election to nominate a party candidate for the office of Representative in Congress is conducted at the public expense and regulated by statute. Candidates who may be voted for at general elections are restricted to primary nominees; to persons, not candidates in the primary, who file nomination papers with the requisite number of signatures, and to persons whose names may be lawfully written into the ballots by the electors. The practical effect is to impose serious restrictions upon the choice of candidates by the voters save by voting at the primary election. The primary election is an integral part of the procedure for choosing Representatives, and in this case, as alleged by the indictment, its practical operation, in the particular Congressional District involved, is to secure the election of the primary nominee of a particular political party. Pp. 311 et seq.

3. The right of the people to choose Representatives in Congress is a right established and guaranteed by Art. I, § 2 of the Constitution, and hence is one secured by it to those citizens and inhabitants of the State who are entitled to exercise the right. P. 314.

The right to vote for Representatives in Congress is a right "derived from the States," only in the sense that the States are authorized by the Constitution to legislate on the subject, as provided by § 2 of Art. I, to the extent that Congress has not restricted state action by the exercise of its powers to regulate elections under § 4, and its more general power, under Art. I, § 8, cl. 18, "to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers."

4. Included within the right to choose, secured by the Constitution, is the right of qualified voters within a State to cast their ballots and have them counted at Congressional elections. P. 315.

Since the constitutional command is without restriction or limitation, this right, unlike those guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth

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Amendments, is secured against the action of individuals, as well as of States.

5. Where the state law has made the primary election an integral part of the procedure of choosing Representatives, or where, in fact, the primary effectively controls the choice, the right of the qualified elector to vote and have his ballot counted at the primary, is part of the right to choose Representatives secured by Art. I, § 2. P. 316.

In determining whether a provision of the Constitution applies to a new subject matter, it is of little significance that it is one with which the framers were not familiar. For, in setting up an enduring framework of government, they undertook to carry out for the indefinite future and in all the vicissitudes of the changing affairs of men, those fundamental purposes which the instrument itself discloses. Hence, we read its words not as we read legislative codes which are subject to continuous revision with the changing course of events, but as the revelation of the great purposes which were intended to be achieved by the Constitution as a continuing instrument of government.

6. A primary election, which is a necessary step in the choice of candidates for election as Representatives in Congress, and which, in the circumstances of the case, controls that choice, is an election within the meaning of Art. I, §§ 2 and 4 of the Constitution, and is subject to Congressional regulation as to the manner of holding it. P. 317.

7. Art. I, § 8, cl. 18 of the Constitution empowers Congress to safeguard by appropriate legislation the right of choice by the people of Representatives in Congress secured by § 2 of Art. I. P. 320.

8. Section 19 of the Criminal Code, making it a crime to conspire to "injure" or "oppress" any citizen "in the free exercise of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution," embraces a conspiracy to prevent qualified voters from exercising their constitutional right of voting, and having their votes counted, in a primary election prerequisite to the choice of party candidates for a Congressional election. P. 321.

9. Section 20 of the Criminal Code provides that whoever, "under color of any law," willfully subjects any inhabitant of any State to the deprivation of any rights, privileges or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States

or to different punishments, pains, or penalties, on account of such inhabitant being an alien, or by reason of his color, or race, than are prescribed for the punishment of citizens,

shall be punished as prescribed.


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(1) The action of election official who conducted a primary election to nominate a party candidate for Representative in Congress in willfully altering and falsely counting and certifying the ballots, were acts under color of state law depriving the voter of constitutional rights within the meaning of the section. P. 325.

(2) The section authorizes punishment for two different offenses: the offense of willfully subjecting any inhabitant to the deprivation of rights secured by the Constitution, and the offense of willfully subjecting any inhabitant to different punishments on account of his alienage, color or race, than are prescribed for the punishment of citizens. P. 327.

10. The Court declines to consider the application of § 20 to deprivations of the light to equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, a point apparently raised for the first time by the Government's brief in this Court and not assigned as error. Since the indictment, on its face, does not purport to charge a deprivation of equal protection to voters or candidates, the Court is not called upon to construe the indictment in order to raise a question of statutory validity or construction. P. 329.

35 F.Supp. 66, reversed.

APPEAL from an order of the District Court sustaining a demurrer to two counts of an indictment.

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STONE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Two counts of an indictment found in a federal district court charged that appellees, Commissioners of Elections, conducting a primary election under Louisiana law to nominate a candidate of the Democratic Party for representative in Congress, willfully altered and falsely counted and certified the ballots of voters cast in the primary election. The questions for decision are whether the right of qualified voters to vote in the Louisiana primary and to have their ballots counted is a right "secured by the Constitution" within the meaning of § 19 and 20 of the Criminal Code, and whether the acts of appellees charged in the indictment violate those sections.

On September 25, 1940, appellees were indicted in the District Court for Eastern Louisiana for violations of §§ 19 and 20 of the Criminal Code, 18 U.S.C. §§ 51, 52. The first count of the indictment alleged that a primary election was held on September 10, 1940, for the purpose of nominating a candidate of the Democratic Party for

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the office of Representative in Congress for the Second Congressional District of Louisiana, to be chosen at an election to be held on November 10th; that, in that district, nomination as a candidate of the Democratic Party is and always has been equivalent to an election; that appellees were Commissioners of Election, selected in accordance with the Louisiana law to conduct the primary in the Second Precinct of the Tenth Ward of New Orleans, in which there were five hundred and thirty-seven citizens and qualified voters.

The charge, based on these allegations, was that the appellees conspired with each other, and with others unknown, to injure and oppress citizens in the free exercise and enjoyment of rights and privileges secured to them by the Constitution and Laws of the United States, namely, (1) the right of qualified voters who cast their ballots in the primary election to have their ballots counted as cast for the candidate of their choice, and (2) the right of the candidates to run for the office of Congressman and to have the votes in favor of their nomination counted as cast. The overt acts alleged were that the appellees altered eighty-three ballots cast for one candidate and fourteen cast for another, marking and counting them as votes for a third candidate, and that they falsely certified the number of votes cast for the respective candidates to the chairman of the Second Congressional District Committee.

The second count, repeating the allegations of fact already detailed, charged that the appellees, as Commissioners of Election, willfully and under color of law subjected registered voters at the primary who were inhabitants of Louisiana to the deprivation of rights, privileges and immunities secured and protected by the Constitution and Laws of the United States, namely their right to cast their votes for the candidates of their choice and to have their votes counted as cast. It further charged

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that this deprivation was effected by the willful failure and refusal of defendants to count the votes as cast, by their alteration of the ballots, and by their false certification of the number of votes cast for the respective candidates in the manner already indicated.

The District Court sustained a demurrer to counts 1 and 2 on the ground that § 19 and 20 of the Criminal Code, under which the indictment was drawn, do not apply to the state of facts disclosed by the [61...

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