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Amdt15.S2.1 State Action Doctrine and Enforcement Clause

Fifteenth Amendment, Section 2:

The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Fifteenth Amendment prohibits denial of rights guaranteed “by the United States or by any State,” giving rise to the “state action” doctrine.1 Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s early interpretations of legislation passed to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment pursuant to Section 2 implied that Congress could protect Constitutional rights against deprivations from private, not just official or state-authorized, sources.2 In the 1903 case James v. Bowman, however, the Court held that the Enforcement Act of 1870’s prohibition on private as well as official interference with the right to vote on racial grounds was unconstitutional.3

The Court began moving away from that interpretation by the 1940s.4 In Smith v. Allwright, the exclusion of African Americans from political parties without the compulsion or sanction of state law was held to violate the Fifteenth Amendment because the political parties were acting in effect as agents of the state.5 Then, in Terry v. Adams, the Court considered a powerful but private political organization that was not regulated by the state and selected its candidates for the Democratic primary election by its own processes.6 The Court held that the exclusion of Black voters by the organization violated the Fifteenth Amendment, although a majority of the Justices did not agree on a rationale for the holding.7

In the 1960 case United States v. Raines, State of Georgia election officials challenged their own charges under the Civil Rights Act by alleging that the statute was unconstitutional as applied to private actors.8 The Court did not rule on the argument, holding that the statute could constitutionally be applied to the defendants and it would not hear their contention that it would be void when applied to others.9

Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461, 473 (1953) (Frankfurter, J., concurring) ( “The State . . . must mean not private citizens but those clothed with the authority and influence which official position affords . . . [State Action] gives rise to a false direction in that it implies some impressive machinery or deliberative conduct normally associated with what orators call a sovereign state. The vital requirement is State responsibility—that somewhere, somehow, to some extent, there be an infusion of conduct by officials, panoplied with State power, into any scheme by which colored citizens are denied voting rights merely because they are colored.” ) back
Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651, 665–66 (1884) ( “The reference to cases in this court in which the power of congress under the first section of the fourteenth amendment has been held to relate alone to acts done under state authority can afford petitioners no aid in the present case. For, while it may be true that acts which are mere invasions of private rights, which acts have no sanction in the statutes of a state, or which are not committed by any one exercising its authority, are not within the scope of that amendment, it is quite a different matter when congress undertakes to protect the citizen in the exercise of rights conferred by the constitution of the United States” ). See also, United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542, 555–56 (1876). back
190 U.S. 127 (1903). back
E.g., United States v. Classic, 313 U.S. 299, 315 (1941); United States v. Williams, 341 U.S. 70, 77 (1951). back
321 U.S. 649 (1944). back
345 U.S. 461 (1953). back
See Amdt15.S1.1 Right to Vote Clause Generally through Amdt15.S1.4 Racial Gerrymandering and Right to Vote Clause. back
United States v. Raines, 362 U.S. 17 (1960). back
See Amdt14.2 State Action Doctrine. back