United States v. Classic

313 U.S. 299

Case Year: 1941

Case Ruling: 4-3, Reversed

Opinion Justice: Stone

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Frankfurter, Reed, Roberts


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Douglas

Joiner(s): Black, Murphy

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


Patrick Classic and other Louisiana elections officials were indicted under federal criminal law for falsely counting and certifying votes cast in the 1940 Democratic primary election for the U.S. House of Representatives. The United States claimed that the defendants had willfully altered eighty-three ballots for one candidate and fourteen for another and counted them as having been cast for a third candidate. The District Court dismissed the charges on the grounds that the federal government did not have the constitutional authority to regulate primary elections. The United States appealed.



... Section 19 of the Criminal Code condemns as a criminal offense any conspiracy to injure a citizen in the exercise 'of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States'. Section 20 makes it a penal offense for anyone who, 'acting under color of any law' 'willfully subjects, or causes to be subjected, any inhabitant of any State ... to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States'. The Government argues that the right of a qualified voter in a Louisiana congressional primary election to have his vote counted as cast is a right secured by Article I, [sections] 2 and 4 of the Constitution, and that a conspiracy to deprive the citizen of that right is a violation of [section]19, and also that the willful action of appellees as state officials, in falsely counting the ballots at the primary election and in falsely certifying the count, deprived qualified voters of that right and of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, all in violation of [section] 20 of the Criminal Code.

Article I, 2 of the Constitution, commands that 'The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature'. By [section] 4 of the same article 'The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators'. Such right as is secured by the Constitution to qualified voters to choose members of the House of Representatives is thus to be exercised in conformity to the requirements of state law subject to the restrictions prescribed by [section] 2 and to the authority conferred on Congress by [section] 4, to regulate he times, places and manner of holding elections for representatives.... Pursuant to the authority given by [section] 2 of Article I of the Constitution, and subject to the legislative power of Congress under [section] 4 of Article I, and other pertinent provisions of the Constitution, the states are given, and in fact exercise a wide discretion in the formulation of a system for the choice by the people of representatives in Congress. In common with many other states Louisiana has exercised that discretion by setting up machinery for the effective choice of party candidates for representative in Congress by primary elections and by its laws it eliminates or seriously restricts the candidacy at the general election of all those who are defeated at the primary. All political parties, which are defined as those that have cast at least 5 per cent of the total vote at specified preceding elections, are required to nominate their candidates for representative by direct primary elections....

The primary is conducted by the state at public expense.... The primary, as is the general election, is subject to numerous statutory regulations as to the time, place and manner of conducting the election, including provisions to insure that the ballots cast at the primary are correctly counted, and the results of the count correctly recorded and certified to the Secretary of State, whose duty it is to place the names of the successful candidates of each party on the official ballot. The Secretary of State is prohibited from placing on the official ballot the name of any person as a candidate for any political party not nominated in accordance with the [law]....

... Even if ... voters may lawfully write into their ballots, cast at the general election, the name of a candidate rejected at the primary and have their ballots counted, the practical operation of the primary law in otherwise excluding from the ballot on the general election the names of candidates rejected at the primary is such as to impose serious restrictions upon the choice of candidates by the voters save by voting at the primary election. In fact, as alleged in the indictment, the practical operation of the primary in Louisiana, is and has been since the primary election was established in 1900 to secure the election of the Democratic primary nominee....

... The primary in Louisiana is an integral part of the procedure for the popular choice of Congressmen. The right of qualified voters to vote at the Congressional primary in Louisiana and to have their ballots counted is thus the right to participate in that choice.

We come then to the question whether that right is one secured by the Constitution. Section 2 of Article I commands that Congressmen shall be chosen by the people of the several states by electors, the qualifications of which it prescribes. The right of the people to choose ... is a right established and guaranteed by the Constitution and hence is one secured by it to those citizens and inhabitants of the state entitled to exercise the right.... While, in a loose sense, the right to vote for representatives in Congress is sometimes spoken of as a right derived from the states, ... this statement is true only in the sense that the states are authorized by the Constitution, to legislate on the subject as provided by [section] 2 of Art. I, to the extent that Congress has not restricted state action by the exercise of its powers to regulate elections under [section] 4 and its more general power under Article I, 8, clause 18 of the Constitution 'To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers'....

Obviously included within the right to choose, secured by the Constitution, is the right of qualified voters within a state to cast their ballots and have them counted at Congressional elections. This Court has consistently held that this is a right secured by the Constitution.... And since the constitutional command is without restriction or limitation, the right unlike those guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, is secured against the action of individuals as well as of states....

But we are now concerned with the question whether the right to choose at a primary election, a candidate for election as representative, is embraced in the right to choose representatives secured by Article I, 2. We may assume that the framers of the Constitution in adopting that section, did not have specifically in mind the selection and elimination of candidates for Congress by the direct primary any more than they contemplated the application of the commerce clause to interstate telephone, telegraph and wireless communication which are concededly within it. But in determining whether a provision of the Constitution applies to a new subject matter, it is of little significance that it is one with which the framers were not familiar. For in setting up an enduring framework of government they undertook to carry out for the indefinite future and in all the vicissitudes of the changing affairs of men, those fundamental purposes which the instrument itself discloses. Hence we read its words, not as we read legislative codes which are subject to continuous revision with the changing course of events, but as the revelation of the great purposes which were intended to be achieved by the Constitution as a continuing instrument of government.... If we remember that 'it is a Constitution we are expounding', we cannot rightly prefer, of the possible meanings of its words, that which will defeat rather than effectuate the Constitutional purpose.

That the free choice by the people of representatives in Congress, subject only to the restrictions to be found in [sections] 2 and 4 of Article I and elsewhere in the Constitution, was one of the great purposes of our Constitutional scheme of government cannot be doubted. We cannot regard it as any the less the constitutional purpose or its words as any the less guarantying the integrity of that choice when a state, exercising its privilege in the absence of Congressional action, changes the mode of choice from a single step, a general election, to two, of which the first is the choice at a primary of those candidates from whom, as a second step, the representative in Congress is to be chosen at the election.

... In Newberry v. United States four Justices of this Court were of opinion that the term 'elections' in [section] 4 of Article I did not embrace a primary election since that procedure was unknown to the framers. A fifth Justice who with them pronounced the judgment of the Court, was of opinion that a primary, held under a law enacted before the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment, for the nomination of candidates for Senator, was not an election within the meaning of [section]4 of Article I of the Constitution, presumably because the choice of the primary imposed no legal restrictions on the election of Senators by the state legislatures to which their election had been committed by Article I, 3. The remaining four Justices were of the opinion that a primary election for the choice of candidates for Senator or Representative were elections subject to regulation by Congress within the meaning of [section] 4 of Article I. The question then has not been prejudged by any decision of this Court.

To decide it we turn to the words of the Constitution read in their historical setting as revealing the purpose of its framers, and in search for admissible meanings of its words which, in the circumstances of their application, will effectuate those purposes. As we have said, a dominant purpose of [section] 2, so far as the selection of representatives in Congress is concerned, was to secure to the people the right to choose representatives by the designated electors, that is to say, by some form of election. From time immemorial an election to public office has been in point of substance no more and no less than the expression by qualified electors of their choice of candidates.

Long before the adoption of the Constitution the form and mode of that expression had changed from time to time. There is no historical warrant for supposing that the framers were under the illusion that the method of effecting the choice of the electors would never change or that if it did, the change was for that reason to be permitted to defeat the right of the people to choose representatives for Congress which the Constitution had guaranteed. The right to participate in the choice of representatives for Congress includes, as we have said, the right to cast a ballot and to have it counted at the general election whether for the successful candidate or not. Where the state law has made the primary an integral part of the procedure of choice, or where in fact the primary effectively controls the choice, the right of the elector to have his ballot counted at the primary, is likewise included in the right protected by Article I, 2. And this right of participation is protected just as is the right to vote at the election, where the primary is by law made an integral part of the election machinery, whether the voter exercises his right in a party primary which invariably, sometimes or never determines the ultimate choice of the representative. Here, even apart from the circumstance that the Louisiana primary is made by law an integral part of the procedure of choice, the right to choose a representative is in fact controlled by the primary because, as is alleged in the indictment, the choice of candidates at the Democratic primary determines the choice of the elected representative. Moreover, we cannot close our eyes to the fact already mentioned that the practical influence of the choice of candidates at the primary may be so great as to affect profoundly the choice at the general election even though there is no effective legal prohibition upon the rejection at the election of the choice made at the primary and may thus operate to deprive the voter of his constitutional right of choice. This was noted and extensively commented upon by the concurring Justices in Newberry v. United States.

Unless the constitutional protection of the integrity of 'elections' extends to primary elections, Congress is left powerless to effect the constitutional purpose, and the popular choice of representatives is stripped of its constitutional protection save only as Congress, by taking over the control of state elections, may exclude from them the influence of the state primaries. Such an expedient would end that state autonomy with respect to elections which the Constitution contemplated that Congress should be free to leave undisturbed, subject only to such minimum regulation as it should find necessary to insure the freedom and integrity of the choice. Words, especially those of a constitution, are not to be read with such stultifying narrowness. The words of [sections] 2 and 4 of Article I, read in the sense which is plainly permissible and in the light of the constitutional purpose, require us to hold that a primary election which involves a necessary step in the choice of candidates for election as representatives in Congress, and which in the circumstances of this case controls that choice, is an election within the meaning of the constitutional provision and is subject to congressional regulation as to the manner of holding it.

Not only does 4 of Article I authorize Congress to regulate the manner of holding elections, but by Article I, 8, Clause 18, Congress is given authority 'To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.' This provision leaves to the Congress the choice of means by which its constitutional powers are to be carried into execution. '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'. McCulloch v. Maryland [1819].... That principle has been consistently adhered to and liberally applied, and extends to the congressional power by appropriate legislation to safeguard the right of choice by the people of representatives in Congress secured by [section] 2 of Article I....

The right of the voters at the primary to have their votes counted is ... a right or privilege secured by the Constitution.... The alleged acts of appellees were committed in the course of their performance of duties under the Louisiana statute requiring them to count the ballots, to record the result of the count, and to certify the result of the election. Misuse of power, possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law, is action taken 'under color of' state law. Here the acts of appellees infringed the constitutional right and deprived the voters of the benefit of it....



Free and honest elections are the very foundation of our republican form of government. Hence any attempt to defile the sanctity of the ballot cannot be viewed with equanimity.... The acts here charged, if proven, are of a kind which carries that threat and are highly offensive. Since they corrupt the process of Congressional elections, they transcend mere local concern and extend a contaminating influence into the national domain. I think Congress has ample power to deal with them. That is to say I disagree with Newberry v. United States [1921]to the extent that it holds that Congress has no power to control primary elections....

So I agree with most of the views expressed in the opinion of the Court. And it is with diffidence that I dissent from the result there reached. The disagreement centers on the meaning of [section] 19 of the Criminal Code which protects every right secured by the Constitution. The right to vote at a final Congressional election and the right to have one's vote counted in such an election have been held to be protected by [section]19.... Yet I do not think that the principles of those cases should be, or properly can be, extended to primary elections. To sustain this indictment we must so extend them. But when we do, we enter perilous territory.

We enter perilous territory because ... there is no common law offense against the United States; 'the legislative authority of the Union must first make an act a crime, affix a punishment to it, and declare the Court that shall have jurisdiction of the offence.' United States v. Hudson [1812].... If a person is to be convicted of a crime, the offense must be clearly and plainly embraced within the statute.... It is one thing to allow wide and generous scope to the express and implied powers of Congress; it is distinctly another to read into the vague and general language of an act of Congress specifications of crimes. We should ever be mindful that 'before a man can be punished, his case must be plainly and unmistakably within the statute.' United States v. Lacher [1890].... It is not enough for us to find in the vague penumbra of a statute some offense about which Congress could have legislated and then to particularize it as a crime because it is highly offensive.... Civil liberties are too dear to permit conviction for crimes which are only implied and which can be spelled out only by adding inference to inference....

MR. JUSTICE BLACK and MR. JUSTICE MURPHY join in this dissent.