380 U.S. 528 (1965), 360, Harman v. Forssenius

Docket Nº:No. 360
Citation:380 U.S. 528, 85 S.Ct. 1177, 14 L.Ed.2d 50
Party Name:Harman v. Forssenius
Case Date:April 27, 1965
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 528

380 U.S. 528 (1965)

85 S.Ct. 1177, 14 L.Ed.2d 50

Harman

v.

Forssenius

No. 360

United States Supreme Court

April 27, 1965

Argued March 1-2, 1965

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA

Syllabus

In anticipation of the promulgation of the Twenty-fourth Amendment abolishing the poll tax as a requirement for voting in federal elections, Virginia eliminated the poll tax as an absolute prerequisite to voting in federal elections and in its stead substituted a provision whereby the federal voter could qualify either by paying the customary poll tax or by filing a certificate of residence six months before the election. In suits attacking the constitutionality of the Virginia statutes, the three-judge District Court refused to abstain to afford the Virginia courts an opportunity to pass on underlying issues of state law and to construe the statutes involved. Reaching the merits, the District Court held the certificate of residence requirement invalid, as an additional "qualification" imposed solely upon federal voters in violation of Art. I, § 2, and the Seventeenth Amendment.

Held:

1. The District Court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to abstain: the state statutes are clearly and unambiguous, the rights allegedly impaired are the fundamental civil rights of a broad class of citizens, and the immediacy of the problem facing the District Court was evident. Pp. 534-537.

2. The certificate of residence requirement is a material requirement imposed upon those who refuse to surrender their constitutional right to vote in federal elections without paying a poll tax, and thus constitutes an abridgment of the right to vote in violation of the Twenty-fourth Amendment. Pp. 538-544.

(a) The poll tax is abolished absolutely as a prerequisite to voting in federal elections, and no equivalent or milder substitute may be imposed. P. 542.

(b) The statutory scheme may not be saved on the ground that the certificate of residence requirement is a necessary method of proving residence, for constitutional deprivations may not be justified by some remote administrative benefit to the State. Pp. 542-544.

235 F.Supp. 66, affirmed.

Page 529

WARREN, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

We are called upon in this case to construe, for the first time, the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.

The precise issue is whether § 24-17.2 of the Virginia Code -- which provides that, in order to qualify to vote in federal elections, one must either pay a poll tax or file a witnessed or notarized certificate of residence1 -- contravenes this command.

Page 530

Prior to the adoption of the Twenty-fourth Amendment, the Virginia Constitution [85 S.Ct. 1180] (Art. II, §§ 18-20) and statutes (Va.Code Ann. §§ 24-17, 24-67 (1950)) established uniform standards for qualification for voting in both federal and state elections. The requirements were: (1) United States citizenship; (2) a minimum age of twenty-one; (3) residence in the State for one year, in the city or county for six months, and in the voting precinct for thirty days; and (4) payment

at least six months prior to any election . . . to the proper officer all State

Page 531

poll taxes ($1.50 annually) assessed or assessable against him for three years next preceding . . . such election.2

The statutes further provided for permanent registration.3 Once registered, the voters could qualify for elections in subsequent years merely by paying the poll taxes.

In 1963, in anticipation of the promulgation of the Twenty-fourth Amendment, the Governor of Virginia convened a special session of the Virginia General Assembly. On November 21 of that year, the General Assembly enacted two Acts4 designed

(1) to enable persons to register and vote in federal elections without the payment of poll tax or other tax, as required by the 24th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, (2) to continue in effect in all other elections the present registration and voting requirements of the Constitution of Virginia, and (3) to provide methods by which all persons registered to vote in federal or other elections may prove that they meet the residence requirements of § 18 of the Constitution of Virginia.5

No changes were made with regard to qualification for voting in state elections. With regard to federal elections, however, the payment of a poll tax as an absolute prerequisite to registration and voting was eliminated,

Page 532

and a provision was added requiring the federal voter to file a certificate of residence in each election year or, at his option, to pay the customary poll taxes. The statute provides that the certificate of residence must be filed no earlier than October 1 of the year immediately preceding that in which the voter desires to vote, and not later than six months prior to the election. The voter must state in the certificate (which must be notarized or witnessed) his present address, that he is currently a resident of Virginia, that he has been a resident since the date of his registration, and that he does not presently intend to remove from the city or county of which he is a resident prior to the next general election. Va.Code Ann. § 24-17.2 (1964 Supp.). Thus, as a result of the 1963 Acts, a citizen, after registration, may vote in both federal and state elections upon the payment of all assessable poll taxes. Va.Code Ann. § 24-17 (1964 Supp.). If he has not paid such taxes, he cannot vote in state elections, and may vote in federal elections only upon filing a certificate of residence in each election year. Va.Code Ann. §§ 24-17.1, 24-17.2 (1964 Supp.).

The present appeal originated as two separate class actions, brought by appellees in the United States District Court [85 S.Ct. 1181] for the Eastern District of Virginia, attacking the foregoing provisions of the 1963 Virginia legislation as violative of Art. I, § 2, of the Constitution of the United States, and the Fourteenth, Seventeenth, and Twenty-fourth Amendments thereto. The complaints, which prayed for declaratory and injunctive relief, named as defendants (appellants here) the three members of the Virginia State Board of Elections and, in one case, the County Treasurer of Roanoke County, Virginia, and, in the other, the Director of Finance of Fairfax County. The jurisdiction of the District Court was invoked pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1343, 2201 (1958 ed.), and

Page 533

a court of three judges was convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281, 2284 (1958 ed.).

The District Court denied the State's motion to stay the proceedings in order to give the Virginia courts an opportunity to resolve the issues and interpret the statutes involved. The court further denied the State's motions to dismiss for failure to join indispensable parties, for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted, and for want of a justiciable controversy.6 On the merits, the District Court held that the certificate of residence requirement was "a distinct qualification," or at least an "increase [in] the quantum of necessary proof of residence" imposed solely on the federal voter, and that it therefore violated Art. I, § 2, and the Seventeenth Amendment, which provide that electors choosing a Representative or Senator in the Congress of the United States "shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislature." The court rejected the argument that the residency certificate was merely a method, like the poll tax, of proving the residence qualification which is imposed on both federal and state voters. Accordingly, the District Court entered an order declaring invalid the portions of the 1963 Virginia legislation which required the filing of a certificate of residence and enjoining appellants from requiring compliance by a voter with said portions of the 1963 Acts. We noted probable jurisdiction. 379 U.S. 810.

We hold that § 24-17.2 is repugnant to the Twenty-fourth Amendment, and affirm the decision of the District

Page 534

Court on that basis. We therefore find it unnecessary to determine whether that section violates Art. I, § 2, and the Seventeenth Amendment.

I

At the outset, we are faced with the State's contention that the District Court should have stayed the proceedings until the courts of Virginia had been afforded a reasonable opportunity to pass on underlying issues of state law and to construe the statutes involved. We hold that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to postpone the exercise of its jurisdiction.

In applying the doctrine of abstention, a federal district court is vested with discretion to decline to exercise or to postpone the exercise of its jurisdiction in deference to state court resolution of underlying issues of state law. Railroad Comm'n v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496.7 Where resolution of the federal constitutional [85 S.Ct. 1182] question is dependent upon, or may be materially altered by, the determination of an uncertain issue of state law, abstention may be proper in order to avoid unnecessary friction in federal-state relations, interference with important state functions, tentative decisions on questions of state law, and premature constitutional adjudication. E.g., Railroad Comm'n of Texas v. Pullman Co., supra. The doctrine, however, contemplates that deference to state court adjudication only be made where the issue of state law is uncertain. Davis v. Mann, 377 U.S. 678, 690; McNeese v. Board...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP