United States v. Reese Et Al

Decision Date01 October 1875
Citation23 L.Ed. 563,92 U.S. 214
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

ERROR to the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Kentucky.

This case was argued at the October Term, 1874, by Mr. Attorney-General Williams and Mr. Solicitor-General Phillips for the United States, and by Mr. Henry Stanbery and Mr. B. F. Buckner for the defendants.

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WAITE delivered the opinion of the court.

This case comes hare by reason of a division of opinion between the judges of the Circuit Court in the District of Kentucky. It presents an indictment containing four counts, under sects. 3 and 4 of the act of May 31, 1870 (16 Stat. 140), against two of the inspectors of a municipal election in the State of Kentucky, for refusing to receive and count at such election the vote of William Garner, a citizen of the United States of African descent. All the questions presented by the certificate of division arose upon general demurrers to the several counts of the indictment.

In this court the United States abandon the first and third counts, and expressly waive the consideration of all claims not arising out of the enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

After this concession, the principal question left for consideration is, whether the act under which the indictment is found can be made effective for the punishment of inspectors of elections who refuse to receive and count the votes of citizens of the United States, having all the qualifications of voters, because of their race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

If Congress has not declared an act done within a State to be a crime against the United States, the courts have no power to treat it as such. U. S. v. Hudson, 7 Cranch, 32. It is not claimed that there is any statute which can reach this case, unless it be the one in question.

Looking, then, to this statute, we find that its first section provides that all citizens of the United States, who are or shall be otherwise qualified by law to vote at any election, &c., shall be entitled and allowed to vote thereat, without distinction of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, any constitution, &c., of the State to the contrary notwithstanding. This simply declares a right, without providing a punishment for its violation.

The second section provides for the punishment of any officer charged with the duty of furnishing to citizens an opportunity to perform any act, which, by the constitution or laws of any State, is made a prerequisite or qualification of voting, who shall omit to give all citizens of the United States the same and equal opportunity to perform such prerequisite, and become qualified on account of the race, color, or previous condition of servitude, of the applicant. This does not apply to or include the inspectors of an election, whose only duty it is to receive and count the votes of citizens, designated by law as voters, who have already become qualified to vote at the election.

The third section is to the effect, that, whenever by or under the constitution or laws of any State, &c., any act is or shall be required to be done by any citizen as a prerequisite to qualify or entitle him to vote, the offer of such citizen to perform the act required to be done 'as aforesaid' shall, if it fail to be carried into execution by reason of the wrongful act or omission 'aforesaid' of the person or officer charged with the duty of receiving or permitting such performance, or offer to perform, or acting thereon, be deemed and held as a performance in law of such act; and the person so offering and failing as aforesaid, and being otherwise qualified, shall be entitled to vote in the same manner, and to the same extent, as if he had, in fact, performed such act; and any judge, inspector, or other officer of election, whose duty it is to receive, count, &c., or give effect to, the vote of any such citizen, who shall wrongfully refuse or omit to receive, count, &c., the vote of such citizen, upon the presentation by him of his affidavit stating such offer, and the time and place thereof, and the name of the person or officer whose duty it was to act thereon, and that he was wrongfully prevented by such person or officer from performing such act, shall, for every such offence, forfeit and pay, &c.

The fourth section provides for the punishment of any person who shall, by force, bribery, threats, intimidation, or other unlawful means, hinder, delay, &c., or shall combine with others to hinder, delay, prevent, or obstruct, any citizen from doing any act required to be done to qualify him to vote, or from voting, at any election.

The second count in the indictment is based upon the fourth section of this act, and the fourth upon the third section.

Rights and immunities created by or dependant upon the Constitution of the United States can be protected by Congress. The form and the manner of the protection may be such as Congress, in the legitimate exercise of its legislative discretion, shall provide. These may be varied to meet the necessities of the particular right to be protected.

The Fifteenth Amendment does not confer the right of suffrage upon any one. It prevents the States, or the United States, however, from giving preference, in this particular, to one citizen of the United States over another on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Before its adoption, this could be done. It was as much within the power of a State to exclude citizens of the United States from voting on account of race, &c., as it was on account of age, property or education. Now it is not. If citizens of one race having certain qualifications are permitted by law to vote, those of another having the same qualifications must be. Previous to this amendment, there was no constitutional guaranty against this discrimination: now there is. It follows that the amendment has invested the citizens of the United States with a new constitutional right which is within the protecting power of Congress. That right is exemption from discrimination in the exercise of the elective franchise on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. This, under the express provisions of the second section of the amendment, Congress may enforce by 'appropriate legislation.'

This leads us to inquire whether the act now under consideration is 'appropriate legislation' for that purpose. The power of Congress to legislate at all upon the subject of voting at State elections rests upon this amendment. The effect of art. 1, sect. 4, of the Constitution, in respect to elections for senators and representatives, is not now under consideration. It has not been contended, nor can it be, that the amendment confers authority to impose penalties for every wrongful refusal to receive the vote of a qualified elector at State elections. It is only when the wrongful refusal at such an election is because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, that Congress can interfere, and provide for its punishment. If, therefore, the third and fourth sections of the act are beyond that limit, they are unauthorized.

The third section does not in express terms limit the offence of an inspector of elections, for which the punishment is provided, to a wrongful discrimination on account of race, &c. This is conceded; but it is urged, that when this section is construed with those which precede it, and to which, as is claimed, it refers, it is so limited. The argument is, that the only wrongful act, on the part of the officer whose duty it is to receive or permit the requisite qualification, which can dispense with actual qualification under the State laws, and substitute the prescribed affidavit therefor, is that mentioned and prohibited in sect. 2,—to wit, discrimination on account of race, &c. and that, consequently, sect. 3 is confined in its operation to the same wrongful discrimination.

This is a penal statute, and must be construed strictly; not so strictly, indeed, as to defeat the clear intention of Congress, but the words employed must be understood in the sense they were obviously used. United States v. Wiltberger, 5 Wheat. 85. If, taking the whole statute together, it is apparent that it was not the intention of Congress thus to limit the operation of the act, we cannot give it that effect.

The statute contemplates a most important change in the election laws. Previous to its adoption, the States, as a general rule, regulated in their own way all the details of all elections. They prescribed the qualifications of voters, and the manner in which those offering to vote at an election should make known their qualifications to the officers in charge. This act interferes with this practice, and prescribes rules not provided by the laws of the States. It substitutes, under certain circumstances, performance wrongfully prevented for performance itself. If the elector makes and presents his affidavit in the form and to the effect prescribed, the inspectors are to treat this as the equivalent of the specified requirement of the State law. This is a radical change in the practice, and the statute which creates it should be explicit in its terms. Nothing should be left to construction, if it can be avoided. The law ought not to be in such a condition that the elector may act upon one idea of its meaning, and the inspector upon another.

The elector, under the provisions of the statute, is only required to state in his affidavit that he has been wrongfully prevented by the officer from qualifying. There are no words of limitation in this part of the section. In a case like this, if an affidavit is in the language of the statute, it ought to be sufficient both for the voter and the inspector. Laws which prohibit the doing of things, and provide a punishment for their violation, should have no double meaning. A citizen should not unnecessarily be placed where, by an honest...

To continue reading

Request your trial
552 cases
  • Parker v. State, F062490, F062709
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • November 6, 2013
    ...who could be rightfully [prosecuted]... .’ " ( Morales, supra, 527 U.S. at p. 60, 119 S.Ct. 1849, quoting United States v. Reese (1876) 92 U.S. 214, 221, 23 L.Ed. 563.)Appellants argue that because the statutory scheme applies to members of a particular vocation, namely ammunition vendors, ......
  • Davis, In re
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • June 3, 1966
    ...it suspects of having committed other crimes which cannot be proven. Almost a century ago the Supreme Court said in United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 221, 23 L.Ed. 563: 'It would certainly be dangerous if the legislature could set a net large enough to catch all possible offenders, and l......
  • McGuire v. Marshall
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Middle District of Alabama
    • January 7, 2021
    ...and leave it to the courts to step inside and say who could be rightfully detained, and who should be set at large." United States v. Reese , 92 U.S. 214, 221 (1876). This ordinance is therefore vague "not in the sense that it requires a person to conform his conduct to an imprecise but com......
  • United States v. Lambert
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Connecticut
    • February 3, 1978
    ...U.S. at 572, 94 S.Ct. 1242; United States v. Cohen Grocery, 255 U.S. 81, 89, 41 S.Ct. 298, 65 L.Ed. 516 (1921); United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 221, 23 L.Ed. 563 (1876). However, the present case is not an example of the Government's "unfettered discretion" in prosecuting on the basis ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 firm's commentaries
  • SCOTUS unanimously reverses two federal fraud convictions based on novel theories
    • United States
    • LexBlog United States
    • May 11, 2023
    ...cannot give the Judiciary uncut marble with instructions to chip away all that does not resemble David. See United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 221 (1876) (“It would certainly be dangerous if the legislature could set a net large enough to catch all possible offenders, and leave it to the ......
20 books & journal articles
  • "Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude": The Constitutional and Persistent Immigration Law Doctrine.
    • United States
    • Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy Vol. 44 No. 1, January 2021
    • January 1, 2021
    ...See Michael J. Zydney Mannheimer, Vagueness As Impossibility, 98 Tex. L. Rev. 1049, 1114 (2020). (212.) E.g., United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 220 (1875). (213.) See Lee & Kornegay, supra note 18, at 84; Koh, supra note 207, at 1134- 36. (214.) 405 U.S. 156 (1972). (215.) Id. at 162......
  • The Long Road to Dignity: The Wrong of Segregation and What the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Had to Change
    • United States
    • Louisiana Law Review No. 74-4, July 2014
    • July 1, 2014
    ...GREAT SOUTH CAROLINA KU KLUX KLAN TRIALS, 1871−1872 (1996). 93. See Blyew v. United States, 80 U.S. 581 (1871); United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214 (1876); United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876); United States v. Harris, 106 U.S. 629 (1883). One lone exception to this dismal record......
  • Gender, Voting Rights, and the Nineteenth Amendment
    • United States
    • The Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy No. 20-1, January 2022
    • January 1, 2022
    ...enacted pursuant to the Reconstruction Amendments. See, e.g. , United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1875); United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 217 (1875); Virginia v. Rives, 100 U.S. 313 (1879); Ex parte Virginia, 100 U.S. 339 (1879); and The Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883). Whi......
  • Table of Cases
    • United States
    • The Path of Constitutional Law Suplemmentary Materials
    • January 1, 2007
    ...(1967), 210, 1451-52 Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71, 92 S.Ct. 251, 30 L.Ed.2d 225 (1971), 202, 1164-67, 1179 Page 1704 Reese, United States v., 92 U.S. 214, 23.Ed. 563 (1876), Reeves, Inc. v. Stake, 447 U.S. 429, 100 S.Ct. 2271, 65 L.Ed.2d 244 (1980), 877, 887 Regan v. Taxation With Representati......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT