Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections

Citation79 S.Ct. 985,3 L.Ed.2d 1072,360 U.S. 45
Decision Date08 June 1959
Docket NumberNo. 584,584
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Samuel S. Mitchell, Raleigh, N.C., for appellant.

Mr. I. Beverly Lake, Raleigh, N.C., for appellee.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This controversy started in a Federal District Court. Appellant, a Negro citizen of North Carolina, sued to have the literacy test for voters prescribed by that State declared unconstitutional and void. A three-judge court was convened. That court noted that the literacy test was part of a provision of the North Carolina Constitution that also included a grandfather clause. It said that the grandfather clause plainly would be unconstitutional under Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347, 35 S.Ct. 926, 59 L.Ed. 1340. It noted, however, that the North Carolina statute which enforced the registration requirements contained in the State Constitution had been superseded by a 1957 Act and that the 1957 Act does not contain the grandfather clause or any reference to it. But being uncertain as to the significance of the 1957 Act and deeming it wise to have all administrative remedies under that Act exhausted before the federal court acted, it stayed its action, retaining jurisdiction for a reasonable time to enable appellant to exhaust her administrative remedies and obtain from the state courts an interpretation of the statute in light of the State Constitution. Lassiter v. Taylor, D.C., 152 F.Supp. 295.

Thereupon the instant case was commenced. It started as an administrative proceeding. Appellant applied for registration as a voter. Her registration was denied by the registrar because she refused to submit to a literacy test as required by the North Carolina statute.1 She appealed to the County Board of Elections. On the de novo hearing before that Board appellant again refused to take the literacy test and she was again denied registration for that reason. She appealed to the Superior Court which sustained the Board against the claim that the requirement of the literacy test violated the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Seventeenth Amendments of the Federal Constitutio. P reserving her federal question, she appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court which affirmed the lower court. 248 N.C. 102, 102 S.E.2d 853. The case came here by appeal, 28 U.S.C. § 1257(2), 28 U.S.C.A. § 1257(2), and we noted probable jurisdiction. 358 U.S. 916, 79 S.Ct. 294, 3 L.Ed.2d 236.

The literacy test is a part of § 4 of Art. VI of the North Carolina Constitution. That test is contained in the first sentence of § 4. The second sentence contains a so-called grandfather clause. The entire § 4 reads as follows:

'Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language. But no male person who was, on January 1, 1867, or at any time prior thereto, entitled to vote under the laws of any state in the United states wherein he then resided, and no lineal descendant of any such person, shall be denied the right to register and vote at any election in this State by reason of his failure to possess the educational qualifications herein prescribed: Provided, he shall have registered in accordance with the terms of this section prior to December 1, 1908. The General Assembly shall provide for the registration of all persons, entitled to vote without the educational qualifications herein prescribed, and shall, on or before November 1, 1908, provide for the making of a permanent record of such registration, and all persons so registered shall forever thereafter have the right to vote in all elections by the people in this State, unless disqualified under section 2 of this article.'

Originally Art. VI contained in § 5 the following provision:

'That this amendment to the Constitution is presented and adopted as one indivisible plan for the regulation of the suffrage, with the intent and purpose to so connect the different parts, and to make them so dependent upon each other, that the whole shall stand or fall together.'

But the North Carolina Supreme Court in the instant case held that a 1945 amendment to Article VI freed it of the indivisibility clause. That amendment rephrased § 1 of Art. VI to read as follows:

'Every person born in the United States, and every person who has been naturalized, twenty-one years of age, and possessing the qualifications set out in this Article, shall be entitled to vote.'

That court said that 'one of those qualifications' was the literacy test contained in § 4 of Art. VI; and that the 1945 amendment 'had the effect of incorporating and adopting anew the provisions as to the qualifications required o a voter as set out in Article VI, freed of the indivisibility clause of the 1902 amendment. And the way was made clear for the General Assembly to act.' 248 N.C. at page 112, 102 S.E.2d at page 860.

In 1957 the Legislature rewrote General Statutes § 163—28 as we have noted. 2 Prior to that 1957 amendment § 163—28 perpetuated the grandfather clause contained in § 4 of Art. VI of the Constitution and § 163—32 established a procedure for registration to effectuate it.3 But the 1957 amendment contained a provision that 'All laws and clauses of laws in conflict with this Act are hereby repealed.'4 The federal three-judge court ruled that this 1957 amendment eliminated the grandfather clause from the statute. 152 F.Supp. at page 296.

The Attorney General of North Carolina, in an amicus brief, agrees that the grandfather clause contained in Art. VI is in conflict with the Fifteenth Amendment. Appellee maintains that the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the invalidity of that part of Art. VI does not impair the remainder of Art. VI since the 1945 amendment to Art. VI freed it of its indivisibility clause. Under that view Art. VI would impose the same literacy test as that imposed by the 1957 statute and neither would be linked with the grandfather clause which, though present in print, is separable from the rest and void. We so read the opinion of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Appellant argues that that is not the end of the problem presented by the grandfather clause. There is a provision in the General Statutes for permanent registration in some counties.5 Appellant points out that although the cut-off date in the grandfather clause was December 1, 1908, those who registered before then might still be voting. If they were allowed to vote without taking a literacy test and if appellant were denied the right to vote unless she passed it, members of the white race would receive preferential privileges of the ballot contrary to the command of the Fifteenth Amendment. That would be analogous to the problem posed in the classic case of Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 6 S.Ct. 1064, 30 L.Ed. 220, where an ordinance unimpeachable on its face was applied in such a way as to violate the guarantee of equal protection contained in the Fourteenth Amendment. But this issue of discrimination in the actual operation of the ballot laws of North Carolina has not been framed in the issues presented for the state court litigation. Cf. Williams v. State of Mississippi, 170 U.S. 213, 225, 18 S.Ct. 583, 588, 42 L.Ed. 1012. So we do not reach it. But we mention it in passing so that it may be clear that nothing we say or do here will prejudice appellant in tendering that issue in the federal proceedings which await the termination of this state court litigation.

We come then to the question whether a State may consistently with the Fourteenth and Seventeenth Amendments apply a literacy test to all voters irrespective of race or color. The Court in Guinn v. United States, supra, 238 U.S. 366, 35 S.Ct. 931, disposed of the question in a few words, 'No time need be spent on the question of the validity of th literacy test, considered alone, since, as we have seen its establishment was but the exercise by the state of a lawful power vested in it not subject to our supervision, and indeed, its validity is admitted.'

The States have long been held to have broad powers to determine the conditions under which the right of suffrage may be exercised, Pope v. Williams, 193 U.S. 621, 633, 24 S.Ct. 573, 576, 48 L.Ed. 817; Mason v. State of Missouri, 179 U.S. 328, 335, 21 S.Ct. 125, 128, 45 L.Ed. 214, absent of course the discrimination which the Constitution con- demns. Article I, § 2 of the Constitution in its provision for the election of members of the House of Representatives and the Seventeenth Amendment in its provision for the election of Senators provide that officials will be chosen 'by the People.' Each provision goes on to state that 'the Electors in each State shall the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.' So while the right of suffrage is established and guaranteed by the Constitution (Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651, 663—665, 4 S.Ct. 152, 158, 159, 28 L.Ed. 274; Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649, 661—662, 64 S.Ct. 757, 763—764, 88 L.Ed. 987) it is subject to the imposition of state standards which are not discriminatory and which do not contravene any restriction that Congress acting pursuant to its constitutional powers, has imposed. See United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 315, 61 S.Ct. 1031, 1037, 85 L.Ed. 1368. While § 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides for apportionment of Representatives among the States according to their respective numbers counting the whole number of persons in each State (except Indians not taxed), speaks of 'the right to vote,' the right protected 'refers to the right to vote as established by the laws and constitution of the state.' McPherson v. Blacker, 146 U.S. 1, 39, 13 S.Ct. 3, 12, 36 L.Ed. 869.

We do not suggest that any standards which a State desires to adopt may be required of voters. But there is wide scope for exercise...

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