Fifteenth Amendment (Judicial Interpretation)

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FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT (Judicial Interpretation)

The judicial interpretation of the Fifteenth Amendment has been closely intertwined with that of the fourteenth amendment, largely in a Southern context. Within a year of ratification (1870) Congress passed three force acts forbidding both public and private interference with voting on the basis of race or color. Federal officials tried hard at first to enforce these laws, but they were daunted by hostility in the South and growing indifference in Congress and the Supreme Court. Prosecutions dropped sharply in 1874; reconstruction ended in 1877; the Jim Crow era of systematic segregation began around 1890; and the conspiracy provisions of the Force Acts were dropped in 1894.

From Reconstruction to world war i the Supreme Court showed more ingenuity in voiding voting rights actions than in upholding them. Although it was willing, under Article I, section 4, to uphold convictions and damage awards for ballot box fraud in federal elections, as in ex parte yarbrough (1884), it would not allow indictments for conspiracy to bribe, even in federal elections as in james v. bowman (1903). It steadfastly refused to uphold convictions for private interference with voting rights in state or local elections in united states v. reese (1875) and united states v. cruikshank (1876), or to uphold civil actions for a state official's refusal to register blacks, in Giles v. Teasley (1904).

The Court did shrug off arguments in Myers v. Anderson (1915) that the Fifteenth Amendment was itself void for diluting the votes of enfranchised whites and thereby depriving their states of equal suffrage in the Senate without their consent. But it did almost nothing to thwart the new franchise restrictions of the Jim Crow era—literacy, property, poll tax, residence, character, and understanding tests—designed to cull black and upcountry white voters. (See williams v. mississippi.) Only in guinn v. united states (1915) did it strike down a grandfather clause exempting descendants of 1867 voters from Oklahoma's literacy test—without, however, striking down the test itself. Guinn had no practical impact on voting registration, but it was important for serving notice that the Fifteenth Amendment bars subtle as well as blatant discrimination.

The Court moved against white primary elections with more deliberation than speed. Party primary elections emerged in response to the regional party monopolies, Republican in the North, Democratic in the South, which followed the "realigning" election of 1896. By World War I, primaries were universal. The dominant party's nomination became the choice that counted, and general elections merely rubber-stamped the dominant party's nominee. This trend was earliest and most pronounced in the South. It weakened party discipline, lowered turnout drastically in general elections, strengthened the dominance of plantation whites, and froze out blacks almost completely.

Blacks challenged this exclusion in a famous series of Texas cases. In nixon v. herndon (1927) and nixon v. condon (1932) NAACP attorneys successfully attacked statutes barring blacks, and letting the parties bar blacks, from voting in primary elections. Counsel for both sides in Herndon argued the Fifteenth Amendment, but Justice oliver wendell holmes, speaking for a unanimous Court, found the statute instead a "direct and obvious infringement of the Fourteenth." The Court followed this precedent in Condon.

In attacking the discriminatory law under the Fourteenth, rather than the denial of a voting right under the Fifteenth, the Court ignored its earlier view that the pertinent section of the Fourteenth was not intended to protect voting rights. (See minor v. happersett.) It also left Texas free to repeal the Condon statute, while permitting the Democrats to exclude blacks legally through their own "private" action. (See grovey v. townsend.)

The Court returned to the Fifteenth Amendment to overrule Grovey in smith v. allwright (1944), finding state action in laws governing the timing and conduct of primary elections and by the "fusing [in united states v. classic (1941)] of primary and general elections into a single instrumentality for the choice of officers." Later, in terry v. adams (1953), the Court extended this concept of "fusion into a single instrumentality" to invalidate a whites-only "preprimary" election used by the Jaybird party since 1889 to capture Democratic nominations in a Texas county.

Without the white primary, segregationist whites had only franchise restrictions to block black votes. These restrictions had reduced black registrations by a third in the nineteenth century, but they had only limited and temporary effect by the 1950s. Black literacy was up, and only three of the eleven Southern states—Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—retained blatantly discriminatory literacy tests. These the Court struck down, along with nondiscriminatory tests where blacks had been segregated in inferior schools.

Congress greatly aided in expanding the black vote with jucidial protection in the civil rights acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964, and especially with the voting rights act of 1965, which authorized suspension of state literacy and character tests and provision of federal examiners to register blacks where discrimination was found. In 1970, congress wholly forbade literacy tests as a condition on voting in state elections.

Though the Court took almost seventy-five years to give the Fifteenth Amendment much practical effect, its interventions since World War II have greatly changed both the constitutional and political landscapes. Smith v. Allwright, with its broad reading of the Fifteenth Amendment looking through form to substance foreshadowed such great Fourteenth Amendment cases as shelley v. kraemer (1948) and brown v. board of education (1954). gomillion v. lightfoot (1960), which struck down a racial gerrymander under the Fifteenth Amendment, was a bridge to baker v. carr (1962).

Opening the primaries and the franchise to blacks brought them out of political exile. Black registration in the South, only five percent in 1940, grew to twenty-eight percent in 1960 and sixty-three percent in 1976, narrowing the gap between black and white registrations from forty-four percent to five percent. Black elected officials in the South increased from fewer than 100 to more than 1,000. White politicians stopped waving ax handles, standing in the doorways of segregated schools, and using terms like "burrhead" in public debate. The Court's enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment may properly be described as late, but not little.

Ward E. Y. Elliott


Elliott, Ward E. Y. 1975 The Rise of Guardian Democracy: The Supreme Court's Role in Voting Rights Disputes, 1845–1969. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Key, V. O., Jr. 1949 Southern Politics. New York: Knopf.

Kousser, J. Morgan 1974 The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880–1910. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Lawson, Steven F. 1976 Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944–1969. New York: Columbia University Press.

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Fifteenth Amendment (Judicial Interpretation)

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