United States v. Classic

Decision Date26 May 1941
Docket NumberNo. 618,618
Citation85 L.Ed. 1368,61 S.Ct. 1031,313 U.S. 299
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 299-301 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Robert H. Jackson, Atty. Gen., and Herbert Wechsler, of Washington, D.C., for appellant.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 301-303 intentionally omitted] Mr. Warren O. Coleman, of New Orleans, La., for appellees.

[Argument of Counsel from Pages 304-306 intentionally omitted] 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, 18 U.S.C.A. § 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 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 pr mary 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 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 indictment and that, if applied to those facts, §§ 19 and 20 are without constitutional sanction, citing United States v. Gradwell, 243 U.S. 476, 488, 489, 37 S.Ct. 407, 411, 412, 61 L.Ed. 857; Newberry v. United States, 256 U.S. 232, 41 S.Ct. 469, 65 L.Ed. 913. The case comes here on direct appeal from the District Court under the provisions of the Criminal Appeals Act, Judicial Code, § 238, 18 U.S.C. § 682, 18 U.S.C.A. § 682, 28 U.S.C. § 345, 28 U.S.C.A. § 345, which authorize an appeal by the United States from a decision or judgment sustaining a demurrer to an indictment where the decision or judgment is 'based upon the invalidity, or construction of the statute upon which the indictment is founded'.

Upon such an appeal our review is confined to the questions of statutory construction and validity decided by the District Court. United States v. Patten, 226 U.S. 525, 33 S.Ct. 141, 57 L.Ed. 333, 44 L.R.A.,N.S., 325; United States v. Birdsall, 233 U.S. 223, 230, 34 S.Ct. 512, 514, 58 L.Ed. 930; United States v. Borden Co., 308 U.S. 188, 192, 193, 60 S.Ct. 182, 185, 84 L.Ed. 181. Hence, we do not pass upon various arguments advanced by appellees as to the sufficiency and construction of the indictment.

Section 19 of the Criminal Code condemns as a criminal offense any conspiracy to injure a citizen in the exercise 'of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States'. Section 20 makes it a penal offense for anyone who, 'acting under color of any law' 'willfully subjects, or causes to be subjected, 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'. The Government argues that the right of a qualified voter in a Louisiana congressional primary election to have his vote counted as cast is a right secured by Article I, §§ 2 and 4 of the Constitution, and that a conspiracy to deprive the citizen of that right is a violation of § 19, and also that the willful action of appellees as state officials, in falsely counting the ballots at the primary election and in falsely certifying the count, deprived qualified voters of that right and of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, all in violation of § 20 of the Criminal Code.

Article I, § 2 of the Constitution, commands that 'The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature'. By § 4 of the same article 'The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators'. Such right as is secured by the Constitution to qualified voters to choose members of the House of Representatives is thus to be exercised in conformity to the requirements of state law subject to the restrictions prescribed by § 2 and to the authority conferred on Congress by § 4, to regulate he times, places and manner of holding elections for representatives.

We look then to the statutes of Louisiana here involved to ascertain the nature of the right which under the constitutional mandate they define and confer on the voter and the effect upon its exercise of the acts with which appellees are charged, all with the view to determining first, whether the right or privilege is one secured by the Constitution of the United States, second, whether the effect under the state statute of appellee's alleged acts is such that they operate to injure or oppress citizens in the exercise of that right within the meaning of § 19 and to deprive inhabitants of the state of that right within the meaning of § 20, and finally, whether §§ 19 and 20 respectively are in other respects applicable to the alleged acts of appellees.

Pursuant to the authority given by § 2 of Article I of the Constitution, and subject to the legislative power of Congress under § 4 of Article I, and other pertinent provisions of the Constitution, the states are given, and in fact exercise a wide discretion in the formulation of a system for the choice by the people of representatives in Congress. In common with many other states Louisiana has exercised that discretion by setting up machinery for the effective choice of party candidates for representative in Congress by primary elections and by its laws it eliminates or seriously restricts the candidacy at the general election of all those who are defeated at the primary. All political parties, which are defined as those that have cast at least 5 per cent of the total vote at specified preceding elections, are required to nominate their candidates for representative by direct primary elections. Louisiana Act No. 46, Regular Session, 1940, §§ 1 and 3.

The primary is conducted by the state at public expense. Act No. 46, supra, § 35. The primary, as is the general election, is subject to numerous statutory regulations as to the time, place and manner of conducting the election, including provisions to insure that the ballots cast at the primary are correctly counted, and the results of the count correctly recorded and certified to the Secretary of State, whose duty it is to place the names of the successful candidates of each party on the official ballot.1 The Secretary of State is prohibited from placing on the official ballot the name of any person as a candidate for any political party not nominated in accordance with the provisions of the Act. Act 46, § 1.

One whose name does not appear on the primary ballot, if otherwise eligible to become a candidate at the general election, may do so in either of two ways, by filing nomination papers with the requisite number of signatures or by...

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