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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Mississippi, 380 U.S. 128 (1965)

United States v. Mississippi

No. 73

Argued January 26, 1965

Decided March 8, 1965

380 U.S. 128


Charging that appellees, the State of Mississippi, the Election Commissioners, and six voting registrars of that State were destroying the right of Mississippi Negroes to vote, the United States brought this action for relief under 42 U.S.C. §1971(d) and other provisions. The complaint alleged a longstanding, carefully executed plan to keep Negroes in Mississippi from voting. It stated that, in 1890, in order to restrict the Negro franchise, a new constitution was adopted, § 244 of which established as a voting prerequisite reading, understanding, or giving a reasonable interpretation of a section of the state constitution; that this provision, when coupled with Negro ineligibility until about 1952 to vote in the decisive Democratic primary election, within nine years reduced the percentage of qualified voters who were Negroes from over 50% to about 9%, and, by 1954, only about 5% of Negroes of voting age were registered; that, in 1954, § 244 was amended to make all of its previously alternative requirements apply and to make an applicant additionally demonstrate "a reasonable understanding of the duties and obligations of citizenship," a requirement which registrars allegedly have applied in a racially discriminatory manner; that, in 1960, two discriminatory voting statutes were adopted, one imposing a "good moral character" qualification, and the other (contrary to federal law) permitting destruction of some voting records; and that, in 1962, a "package" of legislation was enacted further to impede Negro voting registration. The District Court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, held that the Election Commissioners were not proper parties, that the registrars could not be sued jointly, and that venue was improper as to some.


1. Section 1971(a) of Title 42 U.S.C. guarantees the right of citizens "who are otherwise qualified by law" to vote at any election without racial distinction, and subsection (c) authorizes the Attorney General to sue for preventive relief to protect that right regardless of whether it is threatened by invalid laws or valid laws discriminatorily applied. Pp. 380 U. S. 136-138.

Page 380 U. S. 129

2. Section 1971(c) authorizes the Attorney General to make the State a defendant whether or not the office of registrar is vacant. Pp. 380 U. S. 138-141.

3. Since, under state law, the Election Commissioners have the duty to help administer the voter registration laws by formulating rules for tests applied to applicants, the Commissioners were properly named as defendants. Pp. 380 U. S. 141-142.

4. The registrars, who were charged with taking part in a statewide scheme to keep Negroes from voting for racial reasons, were properly joined as defendants in one suit, Rule 20(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure providing for joinder where there is asserted a right to relief arising out of the same transaction or series of transactions and where any question of law or fact common to all will arise in the action, and therefore the venue as to those outside the district and division where the District Court sat was properly laid under 28 U.S.C. §§1392(a) and 1393(b). Pp. 380 U. S. 142-143.

5. The complaint charging that the State of Mississippi and its officials, for over three quarters of a century, had enacted and enforced constitutional provisions, statutes, rules and regulations, and engaged in discriminatory practices, to keep the number of white voters as high, and the number of Negro voters as low, as possible, stated a cause of action, and it was error to dismiss the complaint without trial. Pp. 380 U. S. 143-144.

229 F.Supp. 925 reversed and remanded.

Page 380 U. S. 130

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