Appellees, registered voters in New York City, challenged the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 insofar as it prohibits the enforcement of the election laws of New York requiring an ability to read and write English as a condition of voting.
If a statute is viewed as a measure to secure for the Puerto Rican community residing in New York nondiscriminatory treatment by government – both in the imposition of voting qualifications and the provision or administration of governmental services, such as public schools, public housing and law enforcement – it is valid.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 provides that no person who has successfully completed the sixth primary grade in a public school in or a private school accredited by, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in which the language of instruction was other than English shall be denied the right to vote in any election because of his inability to read or write English. Appellees, registered voters in New York City, challenged the constitutionality of the Act insofar as it prohibits the enforcement of the election laws of New York requiring an ability to read and write English as a condition of voting. Under these laws many of the several hundred thousand New York City residents who have migrated there from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico had previously been denied the right to vote, and appellees attack it insofar as it would enable many of these citizens to vote.
Does the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibiting the enforcement of the election laws of New York requiring an ability to read and write English as a condition of voting violate the Constitution?
No, the section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requiring an ability to read and write English as a condition of voting is a proper exercise of the powers granted to Congress by the Fourteenth Amendment and that by force of the Supremacy clause, the New York English literacy requirement cannot be enforced to the extent that it is inconsistent with the section.
The court has here not a matter of giving deference to a congressional estimate, based on its determination of legislative facts, bearing upon the validity of a statute, but rather what can at most be called a legislative announcement that Congress believes a state law to entail an unconstitutional deprivation of equal protection. Federal authority, legislative no less than judicial, does not intrude unless there has been a denial by state action of Fourteenth Amendment limitations, in this instance a denial of equal protection. To hold that the section at issue overrides the New York literacy requirement seems tantamount to allowing the Fourteenth Amendment to swallow the State’s constitutionally ordained primary authority in this field.
The practical effect of the section is to prohibit New York from denying the right to vote to large segments of its Puerto Rican community. Congress has thus prohibited the State from denying to that community the right that is preservative of all rights. The section was well within congressional authority to say that this need of the Puerto Rican minority for the vote warranted federal intrusion upon any state interests served by the English literacy requirement. It was for Congress to assess and weigh the various conflicting considerations – the risk or pervasiveness of the discrimination in governmental services, the effectiveness of eliminating the state restriction on the right to vote as a means of dealing with the evil, the adequacy or availability of alternative remedies. It is not for the Court to review the congressional resolution of these factors. It is enough that the Court perceive a basis upon which Congress might predicate a judgment that the application of New York’s English literacy requirement to deny the right to vote to a person with a sixth grade education in Puerto Rican schools in which the language of instruction was other than English constituted an invidious discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.