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U.S. Supreme Court

South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (1966)

South Carolina v. Katzenbach

No. 22, Orig.

Argued January 17-18, 1966

Decided March 7, 1966

383 U.S. 301


Invoking the Court's original jurisdiction under Art. III, § 2, of the Constitution, South Carolina filed a bill of complaint seeking a declaration of unconstitutionality as to certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and an injunction against their enforcement by defendant, the Attorney General. The Act's key features, aimed at areas where voting discrimination has been most flagrant, are: (1) A coverage formula or "triggering mechanism" in § 4(b) determining applicability of its substantive provisions; (2) provision in § 4(a) for temporary suspension of a State's voting tests or devices; (3) procedure in § 5 for review of new voting rules, and (4) a program in §§ 6(b), 7, 9, and 13(a) for using federal examiners to qualify applicants for registration who are thereafter entitled to vote in all elections. These remedial sections automatically apply to any State or its subdivision which the Attorney General has determined maintained on November 1, 1964, a registration or voting "test or device" (a literacy, educational, character, or voucher requirement as defined in § 4(c)) and in which, according to the Census Director's determination, less than half the voting-age residents were registered or voted in the 1964 presidential election. Statutory coverage may be terminated by a declaratory judgment of a three-judge District of Columbia District Court that, for the preceding five years, racially discriminatory voting tests or devices have not been used

No person in a covered area may be denied voting rights because of failure to comply with a test or device. § 4(a). Following administrative determinations, enforcement was temporarily suspended of South Carolina's literacy test, as well as of tests and devices in certain other areas. The Act further provides in § 5 that, during the suspension period, a State or subdivision may not apply new voting rules unless the Attorney General has interposed no objection within 60 days of their submission to him, or a three-judge District of Columbia District Court has issued a declaratory judgment that such rules are not racially discriminatory. South Carolina wishes to apply a recent amendment to its voting laws without following these procedures. In

Page 383 U. S. 302

any political subdivision where tests or devices have been suspended, the Civil Service Commission shall appoint voting examiners whenever the Attorney General has, after considering specified factors, duly certified receiving complaints of official racial voting discrimination from at least 20 residents or that the examiners' appointment is otherwise necessary under the Fifteenth Amendment. § 6(b). Examiners are to transmit to the appropriate officials the names of applicants they find qualified, and such persons may vote in any election after 45 days following transmission of their names. § 7(b). Removal by the examiners of names from voting lists is provided on loss of eligibility or on successful challenge under prescribed procedures. § 7(d). The use of examiners is terminated if requested by the Attorney General or the political subdivision has obtained a declaratory judgment as specified in § 13(a). Following certification by the Attorney General, federal examiners were appointed in two South Carolina counties, as well as elsewhere in other States. Subsidiary cures for persistent voting discrimination and other special provisions are also contained in the Act. In addition to a general assault on the Act as unconstitutionally encroaching on States' rights, specific constitutional challenges by plaintiff and certain amici curiae are: the coverage formula violates the principle of equality between the States, denies due process through an invalid presumption, bars judicial review of administrative findings, is a bill of attainder, and legislatively adjudicates guilt; the review of new voting rules infringes Art. III by directing the District Court to issue advisory opinions; the assignment of federal examiners violates due process by foreclosing judicial review of administrative findings and impairs the separation of powers by giving the Attorney General judicial functions; the challenge procedure denies due process on account of its speed, and provisions for adjudication in the District of Columbia abridge due process by limiting litigation to a distant forum.


1. This Court's judicial review does not cover portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 not challenged by plaintiff; nor does it extend to the Act's criminal provisions, as to which South Carolina's challenge is premature. Pp. 383 U. S. 316-317.

2. The sections of the Act properly before this Court are a valid effectuation of the Fifteenth Amendment. Pp. 383 U. S. 308-337.

(a) The Act's voluminous legislative history discloses unremitting and ingenious defiance in certain parts of the country of

Page 383 U. S. 303

the Fifteenth Amendment (see paragraphs (b)-(d), infra) which Congress concluded called for sterner and more elaborate measures than those previously used. P. 383 U. S. 309.

(b) Beginning in 1890, a few years before repeal of most of the legislation to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia enacted tests, still in use, specifically designed to prevent Negroes from voting while permitting white persons to vote. Pp. 383 U. S. 310-311.

(c) A variety of methods was used thereafter to keep Negroes from voting, one of the principal means being through racially discriminatory application of voting tests. Pp. 383 U. S. 311-313.

(d) Case-by-case litigation against voting discrimination under the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964, has not appreciably increased Negro registration. Voting suits have been onerous to prepare, protracted, and, where successful, have often been followed by a shift in discriminatory devices, defiance or evasion of court orders. Pp. 383 U. S. 313-315.

(e) A State is not a "person" within the meaning of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment; nor does it have standing to invoke the Bill of Attainder Clause of Art. I or the principle of separation of powers, which exist only to protect private individuals or groups. Pp. 383 U. S. 323-324.

(f) Congress, as against the reserved powers of the States, may use any rational means to effectuate the constitutional prohibition of racial voting discrimination. P. 383 U. S. 324.

(g) The Fifteenth Amendment, which is self-executing, supersedes contrary exertions of state power, and its enforcement is not confined to judicial invalidation of racially discriminatory state statutes and procedures or to general legislative prohibitions against violations of the Amendment. Pp. 383 U. S. 325, 383 U. S. 327.

(h) Congress, whose power to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment has repeatedly been upheld in the past, is free to use whatever means are appropriate to carry out the objects of the Constitution. @ 17 U. S. 345-346. Pp. 383 U. S. 326-37.

(i) Having determined case-by-case litigation inadequate to deal with racial voting discrimination, Congress has ample authority to prescribe remedies not requiring prior adjudication. P. 383 U. S. 328.

Page 383 U. S. 304

(j) Congress is well within its powers in focusing upon the geographic areas where substantial racial voting discrimination had occurred. Pp. 383 U. S. 328-329.

(k) Congress had reliable evidence of voting discrimination in a great majority of the areas covered by § 4(b) of the Act, and is warranted in inferring a significant danger of racial voting discrimination in the few other areas to which the formula in § 4(b) applies. Pp. 383 U. S. 329-330.

(l) The coverage formula is rational in theory, since tests or devices have so long been used for disenfranchisement, and a lower voting rate obviously results from such disenfranchisement. P. 383 U. S. 330.

(m) The coverage formula is rational as being aimed at areas where widespread discrimination has existed through misuse of tests or devices even though it excludes certain areas where there is voting discrimination through other means. The Act, moreover, strengthens existing remedies for such discrimination in those other areas. Pp. 383 U. S. 330-331.

(n) The provision for termination at the benefit of the States of § 4(b) coverage adequately deals with possible overbreadth; nor is the burden of proof imposed on the States unreasonable. Pp. 383 U. S. 331-332.

(o) Limiting litigation to a single court in the District of Columbia is a permissible exercise of power under Art. III, § 1, of the Constitution, previously exercised by Congress on other occasions. Pp. 383 U. S. 331-332.

(p) The Act's bar of judicial review of findings of the Attorney General and Census Director as to objective data is not unreasonable. This Court has sanctioned withdrawal of judicial review of administrative determinations in numerous other situations. Pp. 383 U. S. 332-333.

(q) Congress has power to suspend literacy tests, it having found that such tests were used for discriminatory purposes in most of the States covered; their continuance, even if fairly administered, would freeze the effect of past discrimination, and re-registration of all voters would be too harsh an alternative. Such States cannot sincerely complain of electoral dilution by Negro illiterates when they long permitted white illiterates to vote. P. 383 U. S. 334.

(r) Congress is warranted in suspending, pending federal scrutiny, new voting regulations in view of the way in which some States have previously employed new rules to circumvent adverse federal court decrees. P. 383 U. S. 335.

Page 383 U. S. 305

(s) The provision whereby a State whose voting laws have been suspended under § 4(a) must obtain judicial review of an Amendment to such laws by the District Court for the District of Columbia presents a "controversy" under Art. III of the Constitution, and therefore does not involve an advisory opinion contravening that provision. P. 383 U. S. 335.

(t) The procedure for appointing federal examiners is an appropriate congressional response to the local tactics used to defy or evade federal court decrees. The challenge procedures contain precautionary features against error or fraud, and are amply warranted in view of Congress' knowledge of harassing challenging tactics against registered Negroes. P. 383 U. S. 336.

(u) Section 6(b) has adequate standards to guide determination by the Attorney General in his selection of areas where federal examiners are to be appointed, and the termination procedures in § 13(b) provide for indirect judicial review. Pp. 383 U. S. 336-337.

Bill of complaint dismissed.

Page 383 U. S. 307

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