State of South Carolina v. Katzenbach

Citation15 L.Ed.2d 769,86 S.Ct. 803,383 U.S. 301
Decision Date07 March 1966
Docket NumberNo. 22,O,22
PartiesSTATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA, Plaintiff, v. Nicholas deB. KATZENBACH, Attorney General of the United States. riginal
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

David W. Robinson, II, and Daniel R. McLeod, Columbia, S.C., for plaintiff.

Atty. Gen. Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, defendant, pro se.

R. D. McIlwaine, III, Richmond, Va., for Commonwealth of Virginia, as amicus curiae.

Jack P. F. Gremillion, Baton Rouge, La., for State of Louisiana, as amicus curiae.

Francis J. Mizell, Jr., and Richmond M. Flowers, Montgomery, Ala., for

State of Alabama, as amicus curiae.

Joe T. Patterson and Charles Clark, Jackson, Miss., for State of Mississippi, as amicus curiae.

E. Freeman Leverett, Atlanta, Ga., for State of Georgia, as amicus curiae.

Levin H. Campbell, Boston, Mass., and Archibald Cox, Washington, D.C., for Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as amicus curiae.

Alan B. Handler, Newark, for State of New Jersey, as amicus curiae.

Mr. Chief Justice WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

By leave of the Court, 382 U.S. 898, 86 S.Ct. 229, South Carolina has filed a bill of complaint, seeking a declaration that selected provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 19651 violate the Federal Constitution, and asking for an injunction against enforcement of these provisions by the Attorney General. Original jurisdiction is founded on the presence of a controversy between a State and a citizen of another State under Art. III, § 2, of the Constitution. See State of Georgia v. Pennsylvania, R. Co., 324 U.S. 439, 65 S.Ct. 716, 89 L.Ed. 1051. Because no issues of fact were raised in the complaint, and because of South Carolina's desire to obtain a ruling prior to its primary elections in June 1966, we dispensed with appointment of a special master and expedited our hearing of the case.

Recognizing that the questions presented were of urgent concern to the entire country, we invited all of the States to participate in this proceeding as friends of the Court. A majority responded by submitting or joining in briefs on the merits, some supporting South Carolina and others the Attorney General. 2 Seven of these States also requested and received permission to argue the case orally at our hearing. Without exception, despite the emotional overtones of the proceeding, the briefs and oral arguments were temperate, lawyerlike and constructive. All viewpoints on the issues have been fully developed, and this additional assistance has been most helpful to the Court.

The Voting Rights Act was designed by Congress to banish the blight of racial discrimination in voting, which has infected the electoral process in parts of our country for nearly a century. The Act creates stringent new remedies for voting discrimination where it persists on a pervasive scale, and in addition the statute strengthens existing remedies for pockets of voting discrimination elsewhere in the country. Congress assumed the power to prescribe these remedies from § 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment, which authorizes the National Legislature to effectuate by 'appropriate' measures the constitutional prohibition against racial discrimination in voting. We hold that the sections of the Act which are properly before us are an appropriate means for carrying out Congress' constitutional responsibilities and are consonant with all other provisions of the Constitution. We therefore deny South Carolina's request that enforcement of these sections of the Act be enjoined.


The constitutional propriety of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 must be judged with reference to the historical experience which it reflects. Before enacting the measure, Congress explored with great care the problem of racial discrimination in voting. The House and Senate Committees on the Judiciary each held hearings for nine days and received testimony from a total of 67 wit- nesses.3 More than three full days were consumed discussing the bill on the floor of the House, while the debate in the Senate covered 26 days in all. 4 At the close of these deliberations, the verdict of both chambers was overwhelming. The House approved the bill by a vote of 328—74, and the measure passed the Senate by a margin of 79—18.

Two points emerge vividly from the voluminous legislative history of the Act contained in the committee hearings and floor debates. First: Congress felt itself confronted by an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution. Seond: Congress concluded that the unsuccessful remedies which it had prescribed in the past would have to be replaced by sterner and more elaborate measures in order to satisfy the clear commands of the Fifteenth Amendment. We pause here to summarize the majority reports of the House and Senate Committees, which document in considerable detail the factual basis for these reactions by Congress.5 See H.R.Rep. No. 439, 89th Cong., 1st Sess., 8—16 (hereinafter cited as House Report); S.Rep.No. 162, pt. 3, 89th Cong., 1st Sess., 3—16, U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative News, p. 2437 (hereinafter cited as Senate Report).

The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1870. Promptly thereafter Congress passed the Enforcement Act of 1870,6 which made it a crime for public officers and private persons to obstruct exercise of the right to vote. The statute was amended in the following year7 to provide for detailed federal supervision of the electoral process, from registration to the certification of returns. As the years passed and fervor for racial equality waned, enforcement of the laws became spotty and ineffective, and most of their provisions were repealed in 1894.8 The remnants have had little significance in the recently renewed battle against voting discrimination.

Meanwhile, beginning in 1890, the States of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia enacted tests still in use which were specifically designed to prevent Negroes from voting.9 Typically, they made the ability to read and write a registration qualification and also required completion of a registration form. These laws were based on the fact that as of 1890 in each of the named States, more than two-thirds of the adult Negroes were illiterate while less than one-quarter of the adult whites were unable to read or write.10 At the same time, alternate tests were prescribed in all of the named States to assure that white illiterates would not be deprived of the franchise. These included grandfather clauses, property qualifications, 'good character' tests, and the requirement that registrants 'understand' or 'interpret' certain matter.

The course of subsequent Fifteenth Amendment litigation in this Court demonstrates the variety and persistence of these and similar institutions designed to deprive Negroes of the right to vote. Grandfather clauses were invalidated in Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347, 35 S.Ct. 926, 59 L.Ed. 1340, and Myers v. Anderson, 238 U.S. 368, 35 S.Ct. 932, 59 L.Ed. 1349. Procedural hurdles were struck down in Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268, 59 S.Ct. 872, 83 L.Ed. 1281. The white primary was outlawed in Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649, 64 S.Ct. 757, 88 L.Ed. 987, and Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461, 73 S.Ct. 809, 97 L.Ed. 1152. Improper challenges were nullified in United States v. Thomas, 362 U.S. 58, 80 S.Ct. 612, 4 L.Ed.2d 535. Racial gerrymandering was forbidden by Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339, 81 S.Ct. 125, 5 L.Ed.2d 110. Finally, discriminatory application of voting tests was condemned in Schnell v. Davis, 336 U.S. 933, 69 S.Ct. 749, 93 L.Ed. 1093; Alabama v. United States, 371 U.S. 37, 83 S.Ct. 145, 9 L.Ed.2d 112, and Louisiana v. United States, 380 U.S. 145, 85 S.Ct. 817, 13 L.Ed.2d 709.

According to the evidence in recent Justice Department voting suits, the latter stratagem is now the principal method used to bar Negroes from the polls. Discriminatory administration of voting qualifications has been found in all eight Alabama cases, in all nine Louisiana cases, and in all nine Mississippi cases which have gone to final judgment.11 Moreover, in almost all of these cases, the courts have held that the discrimination was pursuant to a widespread 'pattern or practice.' White applicants for registration have often been excused altogether from the literacy and understanding tests or have been given easy versions, have received extensive help from voting officials, and have been registered despite serious errors in their answers.12 Negroes, on the other hand, have typically been required to pass difficult versions of all the tests, without any outside assistance and without the slightest error.13 The good-morals require- ment is so vague and subjective that it has constituted an open invitation to abuse at the hands of voting officials.14 Negroes obliged to obtain vouchers from registered voters have found it virtually impossible to comply in areas where almost no Negroes are on the rolls.15

In recent years, Congress has repeatedly tried to cope with the problem by facilitating case-by-case litigation against voting discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 195716 authorized the Attorney General to seek injunctions against public and private interference with the right to vote on racial grounds. Perfecting amendments in the Civil Rights Act of 196017 permitted the joinder of States as parties defendant, gave the Attorney General access to local voting records, and authorized courts to register voters in areas of systematic discrimination. Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 196418 expedited the hearing of voting cases before three-judge courts and outlawed some of the tactics used to disqualify Negroes from voting in federal elections.

Despite the earnest efforts of the Justice Department and of many federal...

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