LOUISIANA V. UNITED STATES, 380 U. S. 145 (1965)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Louisiana v. United States, 380 U.S. 145 (1965)

Louisiana v. United States

No. 67

Argued January 26-27, 1965

Decided March 8, 1965

380 U.S. 145


Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1971(c), the Attorney General brought this action against appellants, the State of Louisiana, the three members of the State Registration Board, and the Board's Director-Secretary, charging a longstanding plan to deprive Louisiana Negroes of voting rights in violation of §1971(a) and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The complaint alleged and the District Court held that the discriminatory scheme began with the adoption of a "grandfather clause" in the Louisiana Constitution of 1898, when about 44% of the State's registered voters were Negroes. Upon this Court's invalidation of a similar clause, Louisiana, in 1921, substituted a new "interpretation test," which required an applicant to interpret a section of the State or Federal Constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar. From that time to 1944, the proportion of registered voters who were Negroes did not exceed 1%, mainly because the white primary system kept Negroes from participating in the Democratic primary, the only politically significant election in the State. When after this Court, in 1944, invalidated racial discrimination in primary elections, and many registrars still failed to apply the interpretation test, the percentage of voters who were Negroes increased to 15%, a situation which, along with increased segregationist sentiment following this Court's school desegregation decision, led the legislature to create a "Segregation Committee." That committee cooperated with Citizens Councils to instruct registrars to promote white political control and to begin wholesale purges of Negroes from the voting rolls. At least 21 parishes in the mid-1950's began applying the interpretation test, to which was added in 1960 a comprehension requirement, applicable to all persons, which the State Registration Board ordered rigidly enforced. The District Court, in view of the virtually unlimited discretion given voting registrars by the Louisiana laws and because the 21 parish registrars had used the interpretation test to keep Negroes from voting, held that test, on its face and as applied, invalid under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and 42 U.S.C. § 1971(a), and enjoined its future use in the State: with respect to the 21 parishes where the test was

Page 380 U. S. 146

found to have been applied, it also enjoined use of a new "citizenship" test absent a reregistration of voters, so that the new test will apply to all or none, and required monthly registration reports to be made for those parishes.


1. The Attorney General has power to sue a State and its officials to protect Negroes' voting rights guaranteed by 42 U.S.C. §1971(a) and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. United States v. Mississippi, ante, p. 380 U. S. 128, followed. P. 380 U. S. 151.

2. The evidence amply supported the District Court's finding that Louisiana's interpretation test, as written and applied so as to give registrars unbridled discretion without any objective standards to determine voting qualifications, was part of a successful plan unlawfully to deprive Louisiana Negroes of their voting rights. Schnell v. Davis, 336 U.S. 933, affirming 81 F. Supp. 872 (D.C.S.D. Ala.), followed. Pp. 380 U. S. 151-153.

3. The decree was well within the District Court's discretion to eliminate past voting discrimination against Negroes in Louisiana, and to bar like discrimination in the future. Pp. 380 U. S. 154-156.

(a) The decree properly enjoined further use of the interpretation test. P. 380 U. S. 154.

(b) Since a large proportion of Negroes in the 21 parishes had been kept from registering by the discriminatory interpretation test, under which virtually all white applicants were allowed to register, the decree properly barred application of the new "citizenship" test, which the State claims is objective, absent a complete reregistration of all voters in those parishes. Pp. 380 U. S. 154-155.

(c) The requirement for monthly registration reports for the 21 parishes was proper to inform the court as to whether the old discriminatory practices had been eliminated. Pp. 380 U. S. 155-156.

225 F.Supp. 353, affirmed.

Page 380 U. S. 147

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