The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to help prevent the disenfranchisement of black Americans and outlawed racial discrimination in voting procedures, enforcing the rights protected in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The Voting Rights Act intended to make voting as accessible as legally possible to all citizens so there were not any barriers, at least set up by the state, to cast a vote. “Special provisions” of the law only applied to certain jurisdictions, some states needed the U.S. Attorney General to approve any changes to election procedures and investigate election irregularities. The Voting Rights Act was clear on outlawing tests or devices as a prerequisite to vote. The South Carolina Attorney General went to the Supreme Court directly, arguing that the law unconstitutionally violated the states’ rights to control their elections. Many southern states stood by South Carolina and joined them in fighting the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court upheld the Voting Rights Act. Chief Justice Warren, writing for the majority, claimed that Congress could pass the law due to their powers derived from the enforcement clause of the Fifteenth Amendment. The enforcement clause was written to allow Congress to defend the rights of groups that may be racially discriminated against or otherwise denied rights and was designed to pass legislation like the Voting Rights Act, that protects the constitutional rights of minorities to vote.
South Carolina v. Katzenbach
383 U.S. 301 (1966)
(Voting Rights Act)
South Carolina has filed a bill of complaint, seeking a declaration that selected provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 violate the Federal Constitution, and asking for an injunction against enforcement of these provisions by the Attorney General.
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.
The heart of the Act is a complex scheme of stringent remedies aimed at areas where voting discrimination has been most flagrant. Section 4 (a)-(d) lays down a formula defining the States and political subdivisions to which these new remedies apply. The first of the remedies, contained in § 4 (a), is the suspension of literacy tests and similar voting qualifications for a period of five years from the last occurrence of substantial voting discrimination. Section 5 prescribes a second remedy, the suspension of all new voting regulations pending review by federal authorities to determine whether their use would perpetuate voting discrimination. The third remedy, covered in §§ 6 (b), 7, 9, and 13 (a), is the assignment of federal examiners on certification by the Attorney General to list qualified applicants who are thereafter entitled to vote in all elections.
Other provisions of the Act prescribe subsidiary cures for persistent voting discrimination. Section 8 authorizes the appointment of federal poll-watchers in places to which federal examiners have already been assigned. Section 10 (d) excuses those made eligible to vote in sections of the country covered by § 4 (b) of the Act from paying accumulated past poll taxes for state and local elections. Section 12 (e) provides for balloting by persons denied access to the polls in areas where federal examiners have been appointed.
The remaining remedial portions of the Act are aimed at voting discrimination in any area of the country where it may occur. Section 2 broadly prohibits the use of voting rules to abridge exercise of the franchise on racial grounds. Sections 3, 6 (a), and 13 (b) strengthen existing procedures for attacking voting discrimination by means of litigation. Section 4 (e) excuses citizens educated in American schools conducted in a foreign language from passing English-language literacy tests. Section 10 (a)-(c) facilitates constitutional litigation challenging the imposition of all poll taxes for state and local elections. Sections 11 and 12 (a)-(d) authorize civil and criminal sanctions against interference with the exercise of rights guaranteed by the Act.
The remedial sections of the Act assailed by South Carolina automatically apply to any State, or to any separate political subdivision such as a county or parish, for which two findings have been made: (1) the Attorney General has determined that on November 1, 1964, it maintained a "test or device," and (2) the Director of the Census has determined that less than 50% of its voting-age residents were registered on November 1, 1964, or voted in the presidential election of November 1964. These findings are not reviewable in any court and are final upon publication in the Federal Register. As used throughout the Act, the phrase "test or device" means any requirement that a registrant or voter must "(1) demonstrate the ability to read, write, understand, or interpret any matter, (2) demonstrate any educational achievement or his knowledge of any particular subject, (3) possess good moral character, or (4) prove his qualifications by the voucher of registered voters or members of any other class."
Statutory coverage of a State or political subdivision under § 4 (b) is terminated if the area obtains a declaratory judgment from the District Court for the District of Columbia, determining that tests and devices have not been used during the preceding five years to abridge the franchise on racial grounds. The Attorney General shall consent to entry of the judgment if he has no reason to believe that the facts are otherwise. For the purposes of this section, tests and devices are not deemed to have been used in a forbidden manner if the incidents of discrimination are few in number and have been promptly correctedif their continuing effects have been abated, and if they are unlikely to recur in the future. On the other hand, no area may obtain a declaratory judgment for five years after the final decision of a federal court (other than the denial of a judgment under this section of the Act), determining that discrimination through the use of tests or devices has occurred anywhere in the State or political subdivision. These declaratory judgment actions are to be heard by a three-judge panel, with direct appeal to this Court.
Suspension of tests.
In a State or political subdivision covered by § 4 (b) of the Act, no person may be denied the right to vote in any election because of his failure to comply with a "test or device."
On account of this provision, South Carolina is temporarily barred from enforcing the portion of its voting laws which requires every applicant for registration to show that he:
"Can both read and write any section of [the State] Constitution submitted to [him] by the registration officer or can show that he owns and has paid all taxes collectible during the previous year on, property in this State assessed at three hundred dollars or more."
The Attorney General has determined that the property qualification is inseparable from the literacy test, and South Carolina makes no objection to this finding. Similar tests and devices have been temporarily suspended in the other sections of the country listed above.
Review of new rules.
In a State or political subdivision covered by § 4 (b) of the Act, no person may be denied the right to vote in any election because of his failure to comply with a voting qualification or procedure different from those in force on November 1, 1964. This suspension of new rules is terminated, however, under either of the following circumstances: (1) if the area has submitted the rules to the Attorney General, and he has not interposed an objection within 60 days, or (2) if the area has obtained a declaratory judgment from the District Court for the District of Columbia, determining that the rules will not abridge the franchise on racial grounds. These declaratory judgment actions are to be heard by a three-judge panel, with direct appeal to this Court. § 5.
South Carolina altered its voting laws in 1965 to extend the closing hour at polling places from 6 p. m. to 7 p. m. The State has not sought judicial review of this change in the District Court for the District of Columbia, nor has it submitted the new rule to the Attorney General for his scrutiny, although at our hearing the Attorney General announced that he does not challenge the amendment. There are indications in the record that other sections of the country listed above have also altered their voting laws since November 1, 1964.
In any political subdivision covered by § 4 (b) of the Act, the Civil Service Commission shall appoint voting examiners whenever the Attorney General certifies either of the following facts: (1) that he has received meritorious written complaints from at least 20 residents alleging that they have been disenfranchised under color of law because of their race, or (2) that the appointment of examiners is otherwise necessary to effectuate the guarantees of the Fifteenth Amendment. In making the latter determination, the Attorney General must consider, among other factors, whether the registration ratio of non-whites to whites seems reasonably attributable to racial discrimination, or whether there is substantial evidence of good-faith efforts to comply with the Fifteenth Amendment. These certifications are not reviewable in any court and are effective upon publication in the Federal Register.
The examiners who have been appointed are to test the voting qualifications of applicants according to regulations of the Civil Service Commission prescribing times, places, procedures, and forms. §§ 7 (a) and 9 (b). Any person who meets the voting requirements of state law, insofar as these have not been suspended by the Act, must promptly be placed on a list of eligible voters. Examiners are to transmit their lists at least once a month to the appropriate state or local officials, who in turn are required to place the listed names on the official voting rolls. Any person listed by an examiner is entitled to vote in all elections held more than 45 days after his name has been transmitted.
A person shall be removed from the voting list by an examiner if he has lost his eligibility under valid state law, or if he has been successfully challenged through the procedure prescribed in § 9 (a) of the Act. § 7 (d). The challenge must be filed at the office within the State designated by the Civil Service Commission; must be submitted within 10 days after the listing is made available for public inspection; must be supported by the affidavits of at least two people having personal knowledge of the relevant facts; and must be served on the person challenged by mail or at his residence. A hearing officer appointed by the Civil Service Commission shall hear the challenge and render a decision within 15 days after the challenge is filed. A petition for review of the hearing officer's decision must be submitted within an additional 15 days after service of the decision on the person seeking review. The court of appeals for the circuit in which the person challenged resides is to hear the petition and affirm the hearing officer's decision unless it is clearly erroneous. Any person listed by an examiner is entitled to vote pending a final decision of the hearing officer or the court.
The listing procedures in a political subdivision are terminated under either of the following circumstances: (1) if the Attorney General informs the Civil Service Commission that all persons listed by examiners have been placed on the official voting rolls, and that there is no longer reasonable cause to fear abridgment of the franchise on racial grounds, or (2) if the political subdivision has obtained a declaratory judgment from the District Court for the District of Columbia, ascertaining the same facts which govern termination by the Attorney General, and the Director of the Census has determined that more than 50% of the non-white residents of voting age are registered to vote. A political subdivision may petition the Attorney General to terminate listing procedures or to authorize the necessary census, and the District Court itself shall request the census if the Attorney General's refusal to do so is arbitrary or unreasonable. The determinations by the Director of the Census are not reviewable in any court and are final upon publication in the Federal Register.
On October 30, 1965, the Attorney General certified the need for federal examiners in two South Carolina counties, and examiners appointed by the Civil Service Commission have been serving there since November 8, 1965. Examiners have also been assigned to 11 counties in Alabama, five parishes in Louisiana, and 19 counties in Mississippi. The examiners are listing people found eligible to vote, and the challenge procedure has been employed extensively. No political subdivision has yet sought to have federal examiners withdrawn through the Attorney General or the District Court for the District of Columbia.
The only sections of the Act to be reviewed at this time are §§ 4 (a)-(d), 5, 6 (b), 7, 9, 13 (a), and certain procedural portions of § 14, all of which are presently in actual operation in South Carolina.
Has Congress exercised its powers under the Fifteenth Amendment in an appropriate manner with relation to the States?
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. Second: 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.
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. Procedural hurdles were struck down. The white primary was outlawed. Improper challenges were nullified. Racial gerrymandering was forbidden. Finally, discriminatory application of voting tests was condemned.
According to estimates by the Attorney General during hearings on the Act, registration of voting-age Negroes in Alabama rose only from 14.2% to 19.4% between 1958 and 1964; in Louisiana it barely inched ahead from 31.7% to 31.8% between 1956 and 1965; and in Mississippi it increased only from 4.4% to 6.4% between 1954 and 1964. In each instance, registration of voting-age whites ran roughly 50 percentage points or more ahead of Negro registration.
Some of [South Carolina’s] contentions may be dismissed at the outset. The word "person" in the context of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment cannot, by any reasonable mode of interpretation, be expanded to encompass the States of the Union, and to our knowledge, this has never been done by any court. Likewise, courts have consistently regarded the Bill of Attainder Clause of Article I and the principle of the separation of powers only as protections for individual persons and private groups, those who are peculiarly vulnerable to nonjudicial determinations of guilt. Nor does a State have standing as the parent of its citizens to invoke these constitutional provisions against the Federal Government, the ultimate parens patriae of every American citizen. The objections to the Act which are raised under these provisions may thereforebe considered only as additional aspects of the basic question presented by the case: Has Congress exercised its powers under the Fifteenth Amendment in an appropriate manner with relation to the States?
As against the reserved powers of the States, Congress may use any rational means to effectuate the constitutional prohibition of racial discrimination in voting.
Section 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment declares that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." This declaration has always been treated as self-executing and has repeatedly been construed, without further legislative specification, to invalidate state voting qualifications or procedures which are discriminatory on their face or in practice.
States "have broad powers to determine the conditions under which the right of suffrage may be exercised." The gist of the matter is that the Fifteenth Amendment supersedes contrary exertions of state power. "When a State exercises power wholly within the domain of state interest, it is insulated from federal judicial review. But such insulation is not carried over when state power is used as an instrument for circumventing a federally protected right."
§ 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment expressly declares that "Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." By adding this authorization, the Framers indicated that Congress was to be chiefly responsible for implementing the rights created in § 1. "It is the power of Congress which has been enlarged. Congress is authorized to enforcethe prohibitions by appropriate legislation. Some legislation is contemplated to make the [Civil War] amendments fully effective." Accordingly, in addition to the courts, Congress has full remedial powers to effectuate the constitutional prohibition against racial discrimination in voting.
The basic test to be applied in a case involving § 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment is the same as in all cases concerning the express powers of Congress with relation to the reserved powers of the States. "Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional."
We reject South Carolina's argument that Congress may appropriately do no more than to forbid violations of the Fifteenth Amendment in general terms -- that the task of fashioning specific remedies or of applying them to particular localities must necessarily be left entirely to the courts. Congress is not circumscribed by any such artificial rules under § 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment. In the oft-repeated words of Chief Justice Marshall, referring to another specific legislative authorization in the Constitution, "This power, like all others vested in Congress, is complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations, other than are prescribed in the constitution."
The coverage formula is rational in both practice and theory. It was thereforepermissible to impose the new remedies on the few remaining States and political subdivisions covered by the formula, at least in the absence of proof that they have been free of substantial voting discrimination in recent years. Congress is clearly not bound by the rules relating to statutory presumptions in criminal cases when it prescribes civil remedies against other organs of government under § 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment.
There are no States or political subdivisions exempted from coverage under § 4 (b) in which the record reveals recent racial discrimination involving tests and devices. This fact confirms the rationality of the formula.
Suspension of tests.
The record shows that in most of the States covered by the Act, including South Carolina, various tests and devices have been instituted with the purpose of disenfranchising Negroes, have been framed in such a way as to facilitate this aim, and have been administered in a discriminatory fashion for many years. Under these circumstances, the Fifteenth Amendment has clearly been violated.
Review of new rules.
The Act automatically suspends the operation of voting regulations enacted after November 1, 1964,and furnishes mechanisms for enforcing the suspension. A State or political subdivision wishing to make use of a recent amendment to its voting laws thereforehas a concrete and immediate "controversy" with the Federal Government. An appropriate remedy is a judicial determination that continued suspension of the new rule is unnecessary to vindicate rights guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment.
Section 6 (b) sets adequate standards to guide the exercise of his [the Attorney General’s] discretion, by directing him to calculate the registration ratio of non-whites to whitesand to weigh evidence of good-faith efforts to avoid possible voting discrimination. At the same time, the special termination procedures of § 13 (a) provide indirect judicial review for the political subdivisions affected, assuring the withdrawal of federal examiners from areas where they are clearly not needed.
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.
Congress can use any rational means to prevent unconstitutional racial discrimination in voting.
Because stopping discrimination on a case-by-case basis would be costly and inefficient, this law is a sensible way of ensuring state compliance with the goals of the 15thAmendment.
Invoking the Court's original jurisdiction under Art. III, § 2, of the Constitution, South Carolina filed a bill of complaint seeking a declaration of unconstitutionality as to certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and an injunction against their enforcement by defendant, the Attorney General. The Act's key features, aimed at areas where voting discrimination has been most flagrant, are: (1) A coverage formula or "triggering mechanism" in § 4 (b) determining applicability of its substantive provisions; (2) provision in § 4 (a) for temporary suspension of a State's voting tests or devices; (3) procedure in § 5 for review of new voting rules; and (4) a program in §§ 6 (b), 7, 9, and 13 (a) for using federal examiners to qualify applicants for registration who are thereafter entitled to vote in all elections. These remedial sections automatically apply to any State or its subdivision which the Attorney General has determined maintained on November 1, 1964, a registration or voting "test or device" (a literacy, educational, character, or voucher requirement as defined in § 4 (c)) and in which according to the Census Director's determination less than half the voting-age residents were registered or voted in the 1964 presidential election. Statutory coverage may be terminated by a declaratory judgment of a three-judge District of Columbia District Court that for the preceding five years racially discriminatory voting tests or devices have not been used. No person in a covered area may be denied voting rights because of failure to comply with a test or device. § 4 (a). Following administrative determinations, enforcement was temporarily suspended of South Carolina's literacy test as well as of tests and devices in certain other areas. The Act further provides in § 5 that during the suspension period, a State or subdivision may not apply new voting rules unless the Attorney General has interposed no objection within 60 days of their submission to him, or a three-judge District of Columbia District Court has issued a declaratory judgment that such rules are not racially discriminatory. South Carolina wishes to apply a recent amendment to its voting laws without following these procedures. In any political subdivision where tests or devices have been suspended, the Civil Service Commission shall appoint voting examiners whenever the Attorney General has, after considering specified factors, duly certified receiving complaints of official racial voting discrimination from at least 20 residents or that the examiners' appointment is otherwise necessary under the Fifteenth Amendment. § 6 (b). Examiners are to transmit to the appropriate officials the names of applicants they find qualified, and such persons may vote in any election after 45 days following transmission of their names. § 7 (b). Removal by the examiners of names from voting lists is provided on loss of eligibility or on successful challenge under prescribed procedures. § 7 (d). The use of examiners is terminated if requested by the Attorney General or the political subdivision has obtained a declaratory judgment as specified in § 13 (a). Following certification by the Attorney General, federal examiners were appointed in two South Carolina counties as well as elsewhere in other States. Subsidiary cures for persistent voting discrimination and other special provisions are also contained in the Act. In addition to a general assault on the Act as unconstitutionally encroaching on States' rights, specific constitutional challenges by plaintiff and certain amici curiae are: The coverage formula violates the principle of equality between the States, denies due process through an invalid presumption, bars judicial review of administrative findings, is a bill of attainder, and legislatively adjudicates guilt; the review of new voting rules infringes Art. III by directing the District Court to issue advisory opinions; the assignment of federal examiners violates due process by foreclosing judicial review of administrative findings and impairs the separation of powers by giving the Attorney General judicial functions; the challenge procedure denies due process on account of its speed; and provisions for adjudication in the District of Columbia abridge due process by limiting litigation to a distant forum.
1. This Court's judicial review does not cover portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 not challenged by plaintiff; nor does it extend to the Act's criminal provisions, as to which South Carolina's challenge is premature.
2. The sections of the Act properly before this Court are a valid effectuation of the Fifteenth Amendment.
(a) The Act's voluminous legislative history discloses unremitting and ingenious defiance in certain parts of the country of the Fifteenth Amendment (see paragraphs (b)-(d), infra) which Congress concluded called for sterner and more elaborate measures than those previously used.
(b) Beginning in 1890, a few years before repeal of most of the legislation to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia enacted tests, still in use, specifically designed to prevent Negroes from voting while permitting white persons to vote.
(c) A variety of methods was used thereafter to keep Negroes from voting, one of the principal means being through racially discriminatory application of voting tests.
(d) Case-by-case litigation against voting discrimination under the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964, has not appreciably increased Negro registration. Voting suits have been onerous to prepare, protracted, and where successful have often been followed by a shift in discriminatory devices, defiance or evasion of court orders.
(e) A State is not a "person" within the meaning of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment; nor does it have standing to invoke the Bill of Attainder Clause of Art. I or the principle of separation of powers, which exist only to protect private individuals or groups.
(f) Congress, as against the reserved powers of the States, may use any rational means to effectuate the constitutional prohibition of racial voting discrimination.
(g) The Fifteenth Amendment, which is self-executing, supersedes contrary exertions of state power, and its enforcement is not confined to judicial invalidation of racially discriminatory state statutes and procedures or to general legislative prohibitions against violations of the Amendment.
(h) Congress, whose power to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment has repeatedly been upheld in the past, is free to use whatever means are appropriate to carry out the objects of the Constitution.
(i) Having determined case-by-case litigation inadequate to deal with racial voting discrimination, Congress has ample authority to prescribe remedies not requiring prior adjudication.
(j) Congress is well within its powers in focusing upon the geographic areas where substantial racial voting discrimination had occurred.
(k) Congress had reliable evidence of voting discrimination in a great majority of the areas covered by § 4 (b) of the Act and is warranted in inferring a significant danger of racial voting discrimination in the few other areas to which the formula in § 4 (b) applies.
(l) The coverage formula is rational in theory since tests or devices have so long been used for disenfranchisement and a lower voting rate obviously results from such disenfranchisement.
(m) The coverage formula is rational as being aimed at areas where widespread discrimination has existed through misuse of tests or devices even though it excludes certain areas where there is voting discrimination through other means. The Act, moreover, strengthens existing remedies for such discrimination in those other areas.
(n) The provision for termination at the behest of the States of § 4 (b) coverage adequately deals with possible overbreadth; nor is the burden of proof imposed on the States unreasonable.
(o) Limiting litigation to a single court in the District of Columbia is a permissible exercise of power under Art. III, § 1, of the Constitution, previously exercised by Congress on other occasions.
(p) The Act's bar of judicial review of findings of the Attorney General and Census Director as to objective data is not unreasonable. This Court has sanctioned withdrawal of judicial review of administrative determinations in numerous other situations.
(q) Congress has power to suspend literacy tests, it having found that such tests were used for discriminatory purposes in most of the States covered; their continuance, even if fairly administered, would freeze the effect of past discrimination; and re-registration of all voters would be too harsh an alternative. Such States cannot sincerely complain of electoral dilution by Negro illiterates when they long permitted white illiterates to vote.
(r) Congress is warranted in suspending, pending federal scrutiny, new voting regulations in view of the way in which some States have previously employed new rules to circumvent adverse federal court decrees.
(s) The provision whereby a State whose voting laws have been suspended under § 4 (a) must obtain judicial review of an amendment to such laws by the District Court for the District of Columbia presents a "controversy" under Art. III of the Constitution and therefore does not involve an advisory opinion contravening that provision.
(t) The procedure for appointing federal examiners is an appropriate congressional response to the local tactics used to defy or evade federal court decrees. The challenge procedures contain precautionary features against error or fraud and are amply warranted in view of Congress' knowledge of harassing challenging tactics against registered Negroes.
(u) Section 6 (b) has adequate standards to guide determination by the Attorney General in his selection of areas where federal examiners are to be appointed, and the termination procedures in § 13 (b) provide for indirect judicial review.
How the Justices Voted