Laughlin v. State of Florida

Decision Date07 December 1964
Docket NumberNo. 11,11
PartiesDewey McLAUGHLIN et al., Appellants, v. STATE OF FLORIDA
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

William T. Coleman, Philadelphia, Pa., Louis H. Pollak, New Haven, Conn., for appellants.

James G. Mahorner, Tallahassee, Fla., for appellee.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

At issue in this case is the validity of a conviction under § 798.05 of the Florida statutes, F.S.A., providing that:

'Any negro man and white woman, or any white man and negro woman, who are not married to each other, who shall habitually live in and occupy in the nighttime the same room shall each be punished by imprisonment not exceeding twelve months, or by fine not exceeding five hundred dollars.'

Because the section applies only to a white person and a Negro who commit the specified acts and because no couple other than one made up of a white and a Negro is subject to conviction upon proof of the elements comprising the offense it proscribes, we hold § 798.05 invalid as a denial of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The challenged statute is a part of chapter 798 entitled 'Adultery and Fornication.'1 Section 798.01 forbids living in adultery and § 798.02 proscribes lewd cohabitation. Both sections are of general application, both require proof of intercourse to sustain a conviction, and both authorize imprisonment up to two years.2 Section 798.03 also of general application, proscribes fornication3 and authorizes a three-month jail sentence. The fourth section of the chapter, 798.04, makes criminal a white person and a Negro's living together in adultery or fornication. A one-year prison sentence is authorized. The conduct it reaches appears to be the same as is proscribed under the first two sections of the chapter.4 Section 798.05, the section at issue in this case, applies only to a white person and a Negro who habitually occupy the same room at nighttime. This offense, however, is distinguishable from the other sections of the chapter in that it is the only one which does not require proof of intercourse along with the other elements of the crime.5

Appellants were charged with a violation of § 798.05. The elements of the offense as described by the trial judge are the (1) habitual occupation of a room at night, (2) by a Negro and a white person (3) who are not married. The State presented evidence going to each factor, appellants' constitutional contentions were overruled and the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Solely on the authority of Pace v. Alabama, 106 U.S. 583, 1 S.Ct. 637, 27 L.Ed. 207, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed and sustained the validity of § 798.05 as against appellants' claims that the section denied them equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. We noted probable jurisdiction, 377 U.S. 914, 84 S.Ct. 1178, 12 L.Ed.2d 185. We deal with the single issue of equal protection and on this basis set aside these convictions.6


It is readily apparent that § 798.05 treats the interractial couple made up of a white person and a Negro differently than it does any other couple. No couple other than a Negro and a white person can be convicted under § 798.05 and no other section proscribes the precise conduct banned by § 798.05. Florida makes no claim to the contrary in this Court. However, all whites and Negroes who engage in the forbidden conduct are covered by the section and each member of the interracial couple is subject to the same penalty.

In this situation, Pace v. Alabama, supra, is relied upon as controlling authority. In our view, however, Pace represents a limited view of the Equal Protection Clause which has not withstood analysis in the subsequent decisions of this Court. In that case, the Court let stand a conviction under an Alabama statute forbidding adultery or fornication between a white person and a Negro and imposing a greater penalty than allowed under another Alabama statute of general application and proscribing the same conduct whatever the race of the participants. The opinion acknowledged that the purpose of the Equal Protection Clause 'was to prevent hostile and discriminating state legislation against any person or class of persons' and that equality of protection under the laws implies that any person, 'whatever his race * * * shall not be subjected, for the same offense, to any greater or different punishment.' 106 U.S., at 584, 1 S.Ct., at 638. But taking quite literally its own words, 'for the same offense' (emphasis supplied), the Court pointed out that Alabama had designated as a separate offense the commission by a white person and a Negro of the identical acts forbidden by the general provisions. There was, therefore, no impermissible discrimination because the difference in punishment was 'directed against the offence designated' and because in the case of each offense all who committed it, white and Negro, were treated alike.7 Under Pace the Alabama law regulating the conduct of both Negroes and whites satisfied the Equal Protection Clause since it applied equally to the among the members of the class which it reached without regard to the fact that the statute did not reach other types of couples performing the identical conduct and without any necessity to justify the difference in penalty established for the two offenses. Because each of the Alabama laws applied equally to those to whom it was applicable, the different treatment accorded interracial and intraracial couples was irrelevant.8

This narrow view of the Equal Protection Clause was soon swept away. While acknowledging the currency of the view that 'if the law deals alike with all of a certain class' it is not obnoxious to the Equal Protection Clause and that 'as a general proposition, this is undeniably true,' the Court in Gulf, C. & S.F.R. Co. v. Ellis, 165 U.S. 150, 155, 17 S.Ct. 255, 256, 41 L.Ed. 666, said that it was 'equally true that such classification cannot be made arbitrarily. * * *' Classification 'must always rest upon some difference which bears a reasonable and just relation to the act in respect to which the classification is proposed, and can never be made arbitrarily, and without any such basis.' Ibid. '(A)rbitrary selection can never be justified by calling it classification.' Id., at 159, 17 S.Ct. at 258. This approach was confirmed in Atchison, T. & S.F.R. Co. v. Matthews, 174 U.S. 96, 104—105, 19 S.Ct. 609, 612—613, 43 L.Ed. 909, and in numerous other cases.9 See, e.g., American Sugar Ref. Co. v. Louisiana 179 U.S. 89, 92, 21 S.Ct. 43, 44, 45 L.Ed. 102; Southern R. Co. v. Greene, 216 U.S. 400, 417, 30 S.Ct. 287, 291, 54 L.Ed. 536; F. S. Royster Guano Co. v. Virginia, 253 U.S. 412, 415, 40 S.Ct. 560, 561, 64 L.Ed. 989; Air-Way Elec. Appliance Corp. v. Day, 266 U.S. 71, 85, 45 S.Ct. 12, 15, 69 L.Ed. 169; Louisville Gas & Elec. Co. v. Coleman, 277 U.S. 32, 37—39, 48 S.Ct. 423, 425—426, 72 L.Ed. 770; Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection & Ins. Co. v. Harrison, 301 U.S. 459, 461—463, 57 S.Ct. 838, 839—840, 81 L.Ed. 1223; Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, 316 U.S. 535, 541—543, 62 S.Ct. 1110, 1113—1114, 86 L.Ed. 1655; Kotch v. Board of River Port Pilot Comm'rs, 330 U.S. 552, 556—557, 67 S.Ct. 910, 912—913, 91 L.Ed. 1093; Hernandez v. Texas, 347 U.S. 475, 478; Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 17—19, 76 S.Ct. 585, 589—591, 100 L.Ed. 891 (opinion of Black, J., announcing judgment), 21—22, 76 S.Ct. 591—592 (Frankfurter, J., concurring); Morey v. Doud, 354 U.S. 457, 465 466, 77 S.Ct. 1344, 1349—1351, 1 L.Ed.2d 1485; Central R. Co. v. Pennsylvania, 370 U.S. 607, 617—618, 82 S.Ct. 1297, 1304—1305, 8 L.Ed.2d 720; Douglas v. California, 372 U.S. 353, 356—357, 83 S.Ct. 814, 816—817, 9 L.Ed.2d 811.

Judicial inquiry under the Equal Protection Clause, therefore, does not end with a showing of equal application among the members of the class defined by the legislation. The courts must reach and determine the question whether the classifications drawn in a statute are reasonable in light of its purpose—in this case, whether there is an arbitrary or invidious discrimination between those classes covered by Florida's cohabitation law and those excluded. That question is what Pace ignored and what must be faced here.

Normally, the widest discretion is allowed the legislative judgment in determining whether to attack some, rather than all, of the manifestations of the evil aimed at; and normally that judgment is given the benefit of every conceivable circumstance which might suffice to characterize the classification as reasonable rather than arbitrary and invidious. See, e.g., McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 425—426, 81 S.Ct. 1101, 1104—1105, 6 L.Ed.2d 393; Two Guys from Harrison-Allentown, Inc., v. McGinley, 366 U.S. 582, 591—592, 81 S.Ct. 1135, 1140—1141, 6 L.Ed.2d 551; Allied Stores of Ohio, Inc. v. Bowers, 358 U.S. 522, 528, 79 S.Ct. 437, 441, 3 L.Ed.2d 480; Railway Express Agency, Inc. v. New York, 336 U.S. 106, 110, 69 S.Ct. 463, 465, 93 L.Ed. 533; Lindsley v. Natural Carbonic Gas Co., 220 U.S. 61, 78—79, 31 S.Ct. 337, 340 341, 55 L.Ed. 369. But we deal here with a classification based upon the race of the participants, which must be viewed in light of the historical fact that the central purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to eliminate racial discrimination emanating from official sources in the States. This strong policy renders racial classifications 'constitutionally suspect,' Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497, 499, 74 S.Ct. 693, 694, 98 L.Ed. 884; and subject to the 'most rigid scrutiny,' Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214, 216, 65 S.Ct. 193, 194, 89 L.Ed. 194; and 'in most circumstances irrelevant' to any constitutionally acceptable legislative purpose, Kiyoshi Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81, 100, 65 S.Ct. 1375, 1385, 87 L.Ed. 1774. Thus it is that racial classifications have been held invalid in a variety of contexts. See,...

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