Smith v. Allwright

321 U.S. 649

Case Year: 1944

Case Ruling: 8-1, Reversed

Opinion Justice: Reed

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Black, Douglas, Frankfurter, Jackson, Murphy, Rutledge, Stone

 

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Author: Roberts

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FACTS

Lonnie E. Smith, a black resident of Harris County, Texas, was denied the right to vote in the Democratic primary election of July 27, 1940. The election was to select the party nominees for U.S. senator and representative, as well as for a number of state offices. Smith met all of the qualifications to vote in Texas, except race; the Texas Democratic party had adopted a resolution to limit voting to whites only. The Supreme Court in Grovey v. Townsend had upheld this same resolution. Based on the Grovey precedent, the district court denied the relief sought, and the court of appeals concurred. The U.S. Supreme Court accepted the case to resolve the apparent conflict between the precedents of Grovey v. Townsend and United States v. Classic. Two prominent civil rights attorneys, Thurgood Marshall and William Hastie--argued Smith's case. Each was associated with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund , and each would go on to impressive judicial careers. Marshall subsequently joined the Supreme Court, and President Truman later appointed Hastie to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.


 

MR. JUSTICE REED DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT.

... Since Grovey v. Townsend and prior to the present suit, no case from Texas involving primary elections has been before this Court. We did decide, however, United States v. Classic. We there held that section 4 of Article I of the Constitution authorized Congress to regulate primary as well as general elections, ... "where the primary is by law made an integral part of the election machinery."... Consequently, in the Classic case, we upheld the applicability to frauds in a Louisiana primary of sections 19 and 20 of the Criminal Code. Thereby corrupt acts of election officers were subjected to Congressional sanctions because that body had power to protect rights of federal suffrage secured by the Constitution in primary as in general elections.... This decision depended, too, on the determination that under the Louisiana statutes the primary was a part of the procedure for choice of federal officials. By this decision the doubt as to whether or not such primaries were a part of "elections" subject to federal control, which had remained unanswered since Newberry v. United States, was erased.... As the Louisiana statutes for holding primaries are similar to those of Texas, our ruling in Classic as to the unitary character of the electoral process calls for a reexamination as to whether or not the exclusion of Negroes from a Texas party primary was state action.... It may now be taken as a postulate that the right to vote in such a primary for the nomination of candidates without discrimination by the State, like the right to vote in a general election, is a right secured by the Constitution.... By the terms of the Fifteenth Amendment that right may not be abridged by any State on account of race. Under our Constitution the great privilege of the ballot may not be denied a man by the State because of his color.

We are thus brought to an examination of the qualifications for Democratic primary electors in Texas, to determine whether state action or private action has excluded Negroes from participation.... Texas requires electors in a primary to pay a poll tax. Every person who does so pay and who has the qualifications of age and residence is an acceptable voter for the primary.... Texas requires by the law the election of the county officers of a party. These compose the county executive committee. The county chairmen so selected are members of the district executive committee and choose the chairman for the district. Precinct primary election officers are named by the county executive committee. Statutes provide for the election by the voters of precinct delegates to the county convention of a party and the selection of delegates to the district and state conventions by the county convention. The state convention selects the state executive committee. No convention may place in platform or resolution any demand for specific legislation without endorsement of such legislation by the voters in a primary. Texas thus directs the selection of all party officers.

Primary elections are conducted by the party under state statutory authority. The county executive committee selects precinct election officials and the county, district or state executive committees, respectively, canvass the returns. These party committees or the state convention certify the party's candidates to the appropriate officers for inclusion on the official ballot for the general election. No name which has not been so certified may appear upon the ballot for the general election as a candidate of a political party. No other name may be printed on the ballot which has not been placed in nomination by qualified voters who must take oath that they did not participate in a primary for the selection of a candidate for the office for which the nomination is made.

The state courts are given exclusive original jurisdiction of contested elections and of mandamus proceedings to compel party officers to perform their statutory duties.

We think that this statutory system for the selection of party nominees for inclusion on the general election ballot makes the party which is required to follow these legislative directions an agency of the State in so far as it determines the participants in a primary election. The party takes its character as a state agency from the duties imposed upon it by state statutes; the duties do not become matters of private law because they are performed by a political party. The plan of the Texas primary follows substantially that of Louisiana, with the exception that in Louisiana the State pays the cost of the primary while Texas assesses the cost against candidates. In numerous instances, the Texas statutes fix or limit the fees to be charged. Whether paid directly by the State or through state requirements, it is state action which compels. When primaries become a part of the machinery for choosing officials, state and national, as they have here, the same tests to determine the character of discrimination or abridgement should be applied to the primary as are applied to the general election. If the State requires a certain electoral procedure, prescribes a general election ballot made up of party nominees so chosen and limits the choice of the electorate in general elections for state offices, practically speaking, to those whose names appear on such a ballot, it endorses, adopts and enforces the discrimination against Negroes, practiced by a party entrusted by Texas law with the determination of the qualifications of participants in the primary. This is state action within the meaning of the Fifteenth Amendment....

The United States is a constitutional democracy. Its organic law grants to all citizens a right to participate in the choice of elected officials without restriction by any State because of race. This grant to the people of the opportunity for choice is not to be nullified by a State through casting its electoral process in a form which permits a private organization to practice racial discrimination in the election. Constitutional rights would be of little value if they could be thus indirectly denied....

The privilege of membership in a party may be, as this Court said in Grovey v. Townsend, no concern of a State. But when, as here, that privilege is also the essential qualification for voting in a primary to select nominees for a general election, the State makes the action of the party the action of the State. In reaching this conclusion we are not unmindful of the desirability of continuity of decision in constitutional questions. However, when convinced of former error, this Court has never felt constrained to follow precedent. In constitutional questions, where correction depends upon amendment and not upon legislative action, this Court throughout its history has freely exercised its power to reexamine the basis of its constitutional decisions. This has long been accepted practice, and this practice has continued to this day. This is particularly true when the decision believed erroneous is the application of a constitutional principle rather than an interpretation of the Constitution to extract the principle itself. Here we are applying, contrary to the recent decision inGrovey v. Townsend, the well-established principle of the Fifteenth Amendment, forbidding the abridgement by a State of a citizen's right to vote. Grovey v. Townsend is overruled.

Judgment reversed.

MR. JUSTICE ROBERTS.

In Mahnich v. Southern Steamship Co. [1944], I have expressed my views with respect to the present policy of the court freely to disregard and to overrule considered decisions and the rules of law announced in them. This tendency, it seems to me, indicates an intolerance for what those who have composed this court in the past have conscientiously and deliberately concluded, and involves an assumption that knowledge and wisdom reside in us which was denied to our predecessors. I shall not repeat what I there said for I consider it fully applicable to the instant decision, which but points the moral anew....

In the present case, as in Mahnich v. Southern S.S. Co. , the court below relied, as it was bound to, upon our previous decision. As that court points out, the statutes of Texas have not been altered since Grovey v. Townsend was decided. The same resolution is involved as was drawn in question in Grovey v. Townsend. Not a fact differentiates that case from this except the names of the parties....

It is regrettable that in an era marked by doubt and confusion, an era whose greatest need is steadfastness of thought and purpose, this court, which has been looked to as exhibiting consistency in adjudication, and a steadiness which would hold the balance even in the face of temporary ebbs and flows of opinion, should now itself become the breeder of fresh doubt and confusion in the public mind as to the stability of our institutions.