Louisiana v. United States

380 U.S. 145

Case Year: 1965

Case Ruling: 9-0, Affirmed

Opinion Justice: Black

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Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Brennan, Clark, Douglas, Goldberg, Harlan, Stewart, Warren, White


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Harlan


1st Dissenting Opinion



2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


The U.S. government brought suit in the federal District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana against the state of Louisiana and members of the state Board of Registration. The government charged the defendants with enforcing state laws denying black citizens the right to vote in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The suit centered on the use of "interpretation" or "understanding tests." These devices, commonly used throughout the South, required any citizen applying for voter registration to pass a test demonstrating a proper understanding of any section of the Louisiana or U.S. Constitutions. The test had no objective standards: the local voting registrar selected the passage to be interpreted by the potential voter and determined whether sufficient understanding had been demonstrated. The state justified this requirement as a means of ensuring a well-informed, qualified electorate. The fact that the Board of Registration developed the interpretation test in cooperation with the state Segregation Committee indicated that other goals also were intended. The test was effective in denying blacks, even those with graduate and professional degrees, the right to vote. The district court ruled in favor of the federal government, and the state appealed.



The complaint alleged, and the District Court found, that beginning with the adoption of the Louisiana Constitution of 1898, when approximately 44 percent of all the registered voters in the State were Negroes, the State had put into effect a successful policy of denying Negro citizens the right to vote because of their race. The 1898 constitution adopted what was known as a "grandfather clause," which imposed burdensome requirements for registration thereafter but exempted from these future requirements any person who had been entitled to vote before January 1, 1867, or who was the son or grandson of such a person. Such a transparent expedient for disfranchising Negroes, whose ancestors had been slaves until 1863 and not entitled to vote in Louisiana before 1867, was held unconstitutional in 1915 as a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment, in a case involving a similar Oklahoma constitutional provision. Guinn v. United States. Soon after that decision Louisiana, in 1921, adopted a new constitution replacing the repudiated "grandfather clause" with what the complaint calls an "interpretation test," which required that an applicant for registration be able to "give a reasonable interpretation" of any clause in the Louisiana Constitution or the Constitution of the United States. From the adoption of the 1921 interpretation test until 1944, the District Court's opinion stated, the percentage of registered voters in Louisiana who were Negroes never exceeded one percent. Prior to 1944 Negro interest in voting in Louisiana had been slight, largely because the State's white primary law kept Negroes from voting in the Democratic Party primary election, the only election that mattered in the political climate of that State.

In 1944, however, this Court invalidated the substantially identical white primary law of Texas, and with the explicit statutory bar to their voting in the primary removed and because of a generally heightened political interest, Negroes in increasing numbers began to register in Louisiana. The white primary system had been so effective in barring Negroes from voting that the "interpretation test" as a disfranchising device had been ignored over the years. Many registrars continued to ignore it after 1944, and in the next dozen years the proportion of registered voters who were Negroes rose from two-tenths of one percent to approximately 15% by March 1956. This fact, coupled with this Court's 1954 invalidation of laws requiring school segregation, prompted the State to try new devices to keep the white citizens in control. The Louisiana Legislature created a committee which became known as the "Segregation Committee" to seek means of accomplishing this goal. The chairman of this committee also helped to organize a semiprivate group called the Association of Citizens Councils, which thereafter acted in close cooperation with the legislative committee to preserve white supremacy. The legislative committee and the Citizens Councils set up programs, which parish voting registrars were required to attend, to instruct the registrars on how to promote white political control. The committee and the Citizens Councils also began a wholesale challenging of Negro names already on the voting rolls, with the result that thousands of Negroes, but virtually no whites, were purged from the rolls of voters. Beginning in the middle 1950's registrars of at least 21 parishes began to apply the interpretation test. In 1960 the State Constitution was amended to require every applicant thereafter to "be able to understand" as well as "give a reasonable interpretation" of any section of the State or Federal Constitution "when read to him by the registrar." The State Board of Registration in cooperation with the Segregation Committee issued orders that all parish registrars must strictly comply with the new provisions.

The interpretation test, the court found, vested in the voting registrars a virtually uncontrolled discretion as to who should vote and who should not. Under the State's statutes and constitutional provisions the registrars, without any objective standard to guide them, determine the manner in which the interpretation test is to be given, whether it is to be oral or written, the length and complexity of the sections of the State or Federal Constitution to be understood and interpreted, and what interpretation is to be considered correct. There was ample evidence to support the District Court's finding that registrars in the 21 parishes where the test was found to have been used had exercised their broad powers to deprive otherwise qualified Negro citizens of their right to vote; and that the existence of the test as a hurdle to voter qualification has in itself deterred and will continue to deter Negroes from attempting to register in Louisiana.

Because of the virtually unlimited discretion vested by the Louisiana laws in the registrars of voters, and because in the 21 parishes where the interpretation test was applied that discretion had been exercised to keep Negroes from voting because of their race, the District Court held the interpretation test invalid on its face and as applied, as a violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and of 42 U.S.C. §1971(a). The District Court enjoined future use of the test in the State, and with respect to the 21 parishes where the invalid interpretation test was found to have been applied, the District Court also enjoined use of a newly enacted "citizenship" test, which did not repeal the interpretation test and the validity of which was not challenged in this suit, unless a reregistration of all voters in those parishes is ordered, so that there would be no voters in those parishes who had not passed the same test.

We have held this day in United States v. Mississippi that the Attorney General has power to bring suit against a State and its officials to protect the voting rights of Negroes guaranteed by 42 U.S.C. §1971(a) and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. There can be no doubt from the evidence in this case that the District Court was amply justified in finding that Louisiana's interpretation test, as written and as applied, was part of a successful plan to deprive Louisiana Negroes of their right to vote. This device for accomplishing unconstitutional discrimination has been little if any less successful than was the "grandfather clause" invalidated by this Court's decision in Guinn v. United States 50 years ago, which when that clause was adopted in 1898 had seemed to the leaders of Louisiana a much preferable way of assuring white political supremacy. The Governor of Louisiana stated in 1898 that he believed that the "grandfather clause" solved the problem of keeping Negroes from voting "in a much more upright and manly fashion" than the method adopted previously by the States of Mississippi and South Carolina, which left the qualification of applicants to vote "largely to the arbitrary discretion of the officers administering the law." A delegate to the 1898 Louisiana Constitutional Convention also criticized an interpretation test because the "arbitrary power, lodged with the registration officer, practically places his decision beyond the pale of judicial review; and he can enfranchise or disfranchise voters at his own sweet will and pleasure without let or hindrance."

But Louisianans of a later generation did place just such arbitrary power in the hands of election officers who have used it with phenomenal success to keep Negroes from voting in the State. The State admits that the statutes and provisions of the state constitution establishing the interpretation test "vest discretion in the registrars of voters to determine the qualifications of applicants for registration" while imposing "no definite and objective standards upon registrars of voters for the administration of the interpretation test." And the District Court found that "Louisiana . . . provides no effective method whereby arbitrary and capricious action by registrars of voters may be prevented or redressed." The applicant facing a registrar in Louisiana thus has been compelled to leave his voting fate to that official's uncontrolled power to determine whether the applicant's understanding of the Federal or State Constitution is satisfactory. As the evidence showed, colored people, even some with the most advanced education and scholarship, were declared by voting registrars with less education to have an unsatisfactory understanding of the Constitution of Louisiana or of the United States. This is not a test but a trap, sufficient to stop even the most brilliant man on his way to the voting booth. The cherished right of people in a country like ours to vote cannot be obliterated by the use of laws like this, which leave the voting fate of a citizen to the passing whim or impulse of an individual registrar. Many of our cases have pointed out the invalidity of laws so completely devoid of standards and restraints. Squarely in point is Schnell v. Davis, in which we affirmed a district court judgment striking down as a violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments an Alabama constitutional provision restricting the right to vote in that State to persons who could "understand and explain any article of the Constitution of the United States" to the satisfaction of voting registrars. We likewise affirm here the District Court's holding that the provisions of the Louisiana Constitution and statutes which require voters to satisfy registrars of their ability to "understand and give a reasonable interpretation of any section" of the Federal or Louisiana Constitution violate the Constitution. And we agree with the District Court that it specifically conflicts with the prohibitions against discrimination in voting because of race found both in the Fifteenth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. §1971(a) to subject citizens to such an arbitrary power as Louisiana has given its registrars under these laws.