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South Carolina v. Katzenbach

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking a declaratory judgment that certain provisions the Voting Rights of Act of 1965 exceeded the scope of congressional legislative authority and violated various provisions of the United States Constitution pertaining to the powers reserved to state governments.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    The provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that mandate the abolition of literacy tests, require advance federal approval of proposed changes to voting regulations and authorize the Attorney General to appoint federal examiners to oversee voter registrations do not violate the United States Constitution or exceed the scope of congressional authority.

    Facts.

    The state of South Carolina (Plaintiff) filed a complaint seeking a declaratory judgment that certain provisions the Voting Rights of Act of 1965 exceeded the scope of congressional legislative authority and violated various provisions of the United States Constitution pertaining to the powers reserved to state governments. The United States Supreme Court assumed jurisdiction because the case presented a controversy between a state and a citizen of another state.

    Issue.

    Whether the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that mandate the abolition of literacy tests, require advance federal approval of proposed changes to voting regulations and authorize the Attorney General to appoint federal examiners to oversee voter registrations violate the United States Constitution or exceed the scope of congressional authority.

    Held.

    No. Plaintiff’s complaint is dismissed. The provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that mandate the abolition of literacy tests, require advance federal approval of proposed changes to voting regulations and authorize the Attorney General to appoint federal examiners to oversee voter registrations do not violate the United States Constitution or exceed the scope of congressional authority.

    Concurrence.

    (Black, J.): I concur with the portions of the opinion sustaining the act’s ban on literacy tests and authorizing the appointment of federal examiners. I disagree with the conclusion that the act’s restrictions against the passage of new voting legislation are constitutional. I question whether a justiciable case or controversy can actually arise under circumstance in which the federal government has already decided what forms of state legislation it will approve. If a justiciable case can arise, then it should be subject to the direct jurisdiction of this Court and not the District Court for the District of Columbia as the act mandates. The states should be entitled to air their grievances before the court. In addition, interference with the power of the states to pass legislation or constitutional amendments as they see fit directly contravenes the Constitution’s guarantee that every state shall be entitled to a republican form of government.

    Discussion.

    Contrary to the assertions of South Carolina, the protections of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the Bill of Attainder Clause of Article I of the Constitution apply only to individuals and private entities. A state may not invoke these protections as a representative of its citizens. As such, the pivotal question is whether the Voting Rights Acts constitutes an infringement upon the powers of the states that exceeds the scope of legislative authority conferred upon Congress by the Fifteenth Amendment. The Fifteenth Amendment authorizes Congress to employ any rational means to abolish state laws and policies that promote racial discrimination in election procedures. Congress is expressly authorized by the Fifteenth Amendment to enact legislation in furtherance of its purpose. Congress tailored the Voting Rights Act to implement anti-discrimination measures that take effect without the requirement of advance judicial approval. Given the time and effort that would be required to individually litigate the merits of individual states’ voting registration policies, this provision represents a reasonable approach. Similarly, it was reasonable for Congress to limit the law’s application only to those states demonstrating a historical record of voter discrimination. Contrary to the position advanced by South Carolina, the doctrine of the equality of states applies only to the requirements for admission into the Union and not to subsequent legislation affecting the operation of state laws. South Carolina challenges the validity of the formulas relied upon by Congress to determine which states should be subject to the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. Congress relied upon evidence of a state’s past use of tests for voter qualification as well as records of voter attendance falling at least 12 points below the national average in the most recent presidential election. The fact that the act does not apply to regions that demonstrate low voter turnout but do not evidence a practice of requiring tests for voter qualification does not invalidate Congress’ choice of states subject to the act’s requirements. The fact that the act covers every state that has previously employed testing requirements demonstrates the reasonableness of Congress’ approach. In addition, the act provides procedures by which affected states may obtain exemption from further coverage under the act by demonstrating an absence of voter discrimination during a five year period. Evidence of acceptable election reform may be submitted by affidavit and the state is afforded the opportunity to rebut any contrary evidence presented by the Federal Government. This burden of proof falls far short of the impossible burden South Carolina contends the act demands. The act’s review and termination procedures adequately compensate for the minimal opportunities provided for judicial review of a state’s voting regulations. Congress reasonable concluded that the requirement of literacy testing for voter registration could not serve a rational state purpose when the several states imposing test requirements freely allowed illiterate whites to vote while excluding only illiterate African-Americans. Congress chose, again reasonably, not to demand a sweeping re-registration subjecting all voters to literacy tests because to do so would disenfranchise a class of white voters already having enjoyed and exercised the privilege. Congress’ decision to subject new voting regulations of affected states to federal approval represents an exceptional measure, but such exceptional remedies are a valid exercise of congressional authority when circumstances demand. A state still has immediate recourse to the federal judiciary in the event that it wishes to contest the denial of approval of a new rule. The act’s authorization for the Attorney General to appoint federal examiners embodies Congress’ recognition that tactics outside the law have been used to intimidate African-American voters in the past. The act specifies minimum standards that the Attorney General must consult in order to qualify the dispatch of federal examiners to a given region. The act’s termination provisions grant the affected states an avenue for escaping the intrusion of federal examiners. The challenged provisions of the Voting Rights Act constitute a legitimate vehicle for achieving the purposes of the Fifteenth Amendment.


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