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CRS Annotated Constitution

Fifteenth Amendment -- Table of ContentsPrev | Next

Federal Remedial Legislation.—The history of federal remedial legislation is of modern vintage.44 The 1957 Civil Rights Act45 authorized the Attorney General of the United States to seek injunctive relief to prevent interference with the voting rights of citizens. The 1960 Civil Rights Act46 expanded on this authorization by permitting the Attorney General to seek a court finding of “pattern or practice” of discrimination in any particular jurisdiction and authorizing upon the entering of such a finding the registration of all qualified persons in the jurisdiction of the race discriminated against by court–appointed referees. This authorization moved the vindication of voting rights beyond a case–by–case process. Further amendments were added in 1964.47 Finally, in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 48 Congress went substantially beyond what it had done before. It provided that if the Attorney General determined that any State or political subdivision maintained on November 1, 1964, any “test or device”49 and that less than 50 per cent of the[p.1947]voting age population in that jurisdiction was registered on November 1, 1964, or voted in the 1964 presidential election, such tests or devices were to be suspended for five years and no person should be denied the right to vote on the basis of such a test or device. A State could reinstitute such a test or device within the prescribed period only by establishing in a three–judge court in the District of Columbia that the test or device did not have a discriminatory intent or effect and the covered jurisdiction could only change its election laws in that period by obtaining the approval of the Attorney General or a three–judge court in the District of Columbia. The Act also provided for the appointment of federal examiners who could register persons meeting nondiscriminatory state qualifications who then must be permitted to vote.

These laws the Supreme Court upheld and expansively applied. In United States v. Mississippi50 the Court held that the Attorney General was properly authorized to sue for preventive relief to protect the right of citizens to vote, that the State could be sued, and that various election officers were defendants and the suit could not be defeated by the resignation of various officers. A lower federal court’s judgment voiding an “interpretation test,” which required an applicant to interpret a section of the state or federal constitution to the satisfaction of the voting registrar was approved in Louisiana v. United States.51 The test was bad because it vested vast discretion in the registrars to determine qualifications while imposing no definite and objective standards for administration of the tests, a system which the evidence showed had been administered so as to disqualify African Americans and qualify whites. The Court also affirmed the lower court’s decree invalidating imposition of a new objective test for new voters unless the State required all present voters to reregister so that all voters were tested by the same standards.

But it was in upholding the constitutionality of the 1965 Act that the Court sketched in the outlines of a broad power in Con[p.1948]gress to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment.52 While Sec. 1 authorized the courts to strike down state statutes and procedures which denied the vote on the basis of race, the Court held, Sec. 2 authorized Congress to go beyond proscribing certain discriminatory statutes and practices to “enforcing” the guarantee by any rational means at its disposal. The standard was the same as that employed under the “necessary and proper” clause supporting other congressional legislation. Congress was therefore justified in deciding that certain areas of the Nation were the primary locations of voting discrimination and in directing its remedial legislation to those areas. Congress chose a rational formula based on the existence of voting tests which could be used to discriminate and based on low registration or voting rates demonstrating the likelihood that the tests had been so used; it could properly suspend for a period all literacy tests in the affected areas upon findings that they had been administered discriminatorily and that illiterate whites had been registered while both literate and illiterate African Americans had not been; it could require the States to seek federal permission to reinstitute old tests or to institute new ones; and it could provide for federal examiners to register qualified voters. The nearly unanimous decision affords Congress a vast amount of discretion to enact measures designed to enforce the Amendment through broad affirmative prescriptions rather than through proscriptions of specific practices.53 Subsequent decisions confirm the reach of this power. In one case, the Court held that evidence of discrimination in the educational opportunities available to black children in the county as compared to that available to white children during the period in which most of the adults who were now potential voters were in school precluded a North Carolina county from reinstituting a literacy test because of the past educational discrimination.54 And when Congress in 1970 55 suspended for a five–year period literacy tests throughout the Nation, the Court unanimously sustained the action as a valid measure to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment.56

Moreover, in City of Rome v. United States,57 the Court read even more broadly the scope of Congress’ remedial powers under Sec. 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment, paralleling the similar reasoning under Sec. 5 of the Fourteenth. The jurisdiction sought to escape from[p.1949]coverage of the Voting Rights Act by showing that it had not utilized any discriminatory practices within the prescribed period. The lower court had found that the City had engaged in practices without any discriminatory motive but that the practices had had a discriminatory impact. The City thus argued that, inasmuch as the Fifteenth Amendment reached only purposeful discrimination, the Act’s proscription of effect as well as purpose went beyond Congress’ power. The Court held, however, that even if discriminatory intent was a prerequisite to finding a violation of Sec. 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment by the courts,58 Congress had the authority to go beyond that and proscribe electoral devices that had the effect of discriminating. The section, like Sec. 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, was in effect a “necessary and proper clause” enabling Congress to enact enforcement legislation which was rationally related to the end sought and which was not prohibited by it but was consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, even though the actual practice outlawed or restricted would not be judicially found to violate the Fifteenth Amendment. In so acting, Congress could prohibit state action that perpetuated the effect of past discrimination, or that, because of the existence of past purposeful discrimination, raised a risk of purposeful discrimination that might not lend itself to judicial invalidation. “It is clear, then, that under Sec. 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment Congress may prohibit practices that in and of themselves do not violate Sec. 1 of the Amendment, so long as the prohibitions attacking racial discrimination in voting are ‘appropriate,’ as that term is defined in McCulloch v. Maryland and Ex parte Virginia . . . . Congress could rationally have concluded that, because electoral changes by jurisdictions with a demonstrable history of intentional racial discrimination in voting create the risk of purposeful discrimination, it was proper to prohibit changes that have a discriminatory impact.59 City of Rome is highly significant for the validity of congressional additions to the Voting Rights Act. In 1975 and 1982, the Act was extended and revised to increase its effectiveness,60 and the 1982 Amendments[p.1950]were addressed to revitalizing Sec. 2 of the Act, which, unlike §§ 4 and 5, that remain limited to a number of jurisdictions, applies nationwide.61 As enacted in 1965, Sec. 2 largely tracked the language of the Fifteenth Amendment itself. In City of Mobile v. Bolden,62 a majority of the Court agreed that the Fifteenth Amendment and Sec. 2 of the Act were coextensive, but the Justices did not agree on the meaning thus to be ascribed to the statute. A plurality did believe that because the constitutional provision reached only purposeful discrimination, Sec. 2 was similarly limited. It was one major purpose of Congress in 1982 to set aside this possible interpretation and provide that any electoral practice “which results in a denial or abridgement” of the right to vote on account of race or color will violate the Act.63 The subsequent Court adoption, or re– adoption, of the standards by which it can be determined when a practice denies or abridges the right to vote, though couched in terms of proving intent or motivation, may well bring the constitutional and statutory standards into such close agreement that the constitutional question will not arise.64


Footnotes

44 The 1871 Act, ch. 99, 16 Stat. 433 , provided for a detailed federal supervision of the electoral process, from registration to the certification of returns. It was repealed in 1894. ch. 25, 28 Stat. 36 . In Giles v. Harris, 189 U.S. 475 (1903) , the Court, in an opinion by Justice Holmes, refused to order the registration of 6,000 African Americans who alleged that they were being wrongly denied the franchise, the Court observing that no judicial order would do them any good in the absence of judicial supervision of the actual voting, which it was not prepared to do, and suggesting that the petitioners apply to Congress or the President for relief.
45 Pub. L. No. 85–315, 71 Stat. 634 . See United States v. Raines, 362 U.S. 17 (1960) ; United States v. Alabama, 192 F. Supp. 677 (M.D. Ala. 1961), aff’d, 304 F.2d 583 (5th Cir.), aff’d, 371 U.S. 37 (1962) .
46 Pub. L. No. 86–449, 74 Stat. 86 .
47 Pub. L. No. 88–352, 78 Stat. 241 .
48 Pub. L. No. 89–110, 79 Stat. 437 , 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1973 et seq.
49 The phrase “test or device” was defined as any requirement for (1) demonstrating the ability to read, write, understand, or interpret any matter, (2) demonstrating any educational achievement or knowledge, (3) demonstrating good moral character, (4) proving qualifications by vouching of registered voters. Aimed primarily at literacy tests, South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 333–34 (1966) , the Act was considerably broadened through the Court’s interpretation of Sec. 5, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1973c , which require the approval either of the Attorney General or a three–judge court in the District of Columbia before a State could put into effect any new voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting, to include such changes as apportionment and districting, adoption of at–large instead of district elections, candidate qualification regulations, provisions for assistance of illiterate voters, movement of polling places, adoption of appointive instead of elective positions, annexations, and public employer restrictions upon employees running for elective office. Allen v. State Board of Elections, 393 U.S. 544 (1969) ; Perkins v. Matthews, 400 U.S. 379 (1971) ; Georgia v. United States, 411 U.S. 526 (1973) ; Dougherty County Bd. of Educ. v. White, 439 U.S. 32 (1978) . See also United States v. Board of Comm’rs of Sheffield, 435 U.S. 110 (1978) (pre–coverage provisions apply to all entities having power over any aspect of voting, not just “political subdivisions” as defined in Act).
50 380 U.S. 128 (1965) .
51 380 U.S. 145 (1965) . See also United States v. Thomas, 362 U.S. 58 (1960) ; United States v. Alabama, 362 U.S. 602 (1960) ; Alabama v. United States, 371 U.S. 37 (1962) .
52 South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (1966) .
53 Justice Black dissented from that portion of the decision which upheld the requirement that before a State could change its voting laws it must seek approval of the Attorney General or a federal court. Id. at 355.
54 Gaston County v. United States, 395 U.S. 285 (1969) .
55 84 Stat. 315 , 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1973aa .
56 Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112, 131–34, 144–47, 216–17, 231–36, 282–84 (1970) .
57 446 U.S. 156 (1980) .
58 Cf. City of Mobile v. Bolden, 446 U.S. 55 (1980) .
59 City of Rome v. United States, 446 U.S. 156, 177 (1980) . Justices Powell, Rehnquist, and Stewart dissented. Id. at 193, 206.

Supplement: [P. 1949, add to n.59:]

In Lopez v. Monterey County, 525 U.S. 266 (1999) , the Court reiterated its prior holdings that Congress may exercise its enforcement power based on discriminatory effects, and without any finding of discriminatory intent.

60 The 1975 amendments, Pub. L. 94–73, 89 Stat. 400 , extended the Act for seven years, expanded it to include those areas having minorities distinguished by their language, i.e., “persons who are American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Natives or of Spanish heritage,” 207, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1973 1f(c)(3), in which certain statistical tests are met and requiring election materials be provided in the language(s) of the group(s), and enlarged to require bilingual elections if more than five percent of the voting age citizens of a political subdivision are members of a single language minority group whose illiteracy rate is higher than the national rate. The 1982 amendments, Pub. L. 97–205, 96 Stat. 131 , in addition to the Sec. 2 revision, alter after August 5, 1984, the provisions by which a covered jurisdiction may take itself from under the Act by proving to the special court in the District of Columbia that it has complied with the Act for the previous ten years and that it has taken positive steps both to encourage minority political participation and to remove structural barriers to minority electoral influence. Moreover, the amendments change the result in Beer v. United States, 425 U.S. 130 (1976) , in which the Court had held that a covered jurisdiction was precluded from altering a voting practice only if the change would lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities; even if the change was only a little ameliorative of existing discrimination, the jurisdiction could implement it. The 1982 amendments provide that the change may not be approved if it would “perpetuate voting discrimination,” in effect applying the new Sec. 2 results test to preclearance procedures. S. Rep. No. 417, 97th Congress, 2d Sess. 12 (1982); H.R. Rep. No. 227, 97th Congress, 1st Sess. 28 (1981).
61 Private parties may bring suit to challenge electoral practices under Sec. 2. It provided, before the 1982 amendments, that “[n]o voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”
62 446 U.S. 55 (1980) . See id. at 60–61 (Justices Stewart, Powell, Rehnquist, and Chief Justice Burger), and id. at 105 n.2 (Justice Marshall dissenting).
63 In Sec. 3 of the 1982 amendments, Sec. 2 of the Act was amended by the insertion of the quoted phrase and the addition of a section setting out a nonexclusive list of factors making up a totality of circumstances test by which a violation of Sec. 2 would be determined. 96 Stat. 134 , amending 42 U.S. Sec. 1973. Without any discussion of the Fifteenth Amendment, the Court in Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30 (1986) , interpreted and applied the “totality of the circumstances” test in the context of multimember districting.
64 See Rogers v. Lodge, 458 U.S. 613 (1982) .
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