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Reese v. United States 92 U.S. 214 (1876)

REESE v. UNITED STATES 92 U.S. 214 (1876)

Reese was the first voting rights case under the fifteenth amendment and, among the early decisions, the most consequential. The Supreme Court crippled the attempt of the federal government to protect the right to vote and made constitutionally possible the circumvention of the Fifteenth Amendment by formally nonracial state qualifications on the right to vote. Congress had made election officials subject to federal prosecution for refusing to qualify eligible voters or not allowing them to vote. Part of the statute specified denial on account of race, part did not. One section, for example, provided for the punishment of any person who prevented any citizen from voting or qualifying to vote. A black citizen offered to pay his poll tax to vote in a municipal election, but the election officials refused to receive his tax or to let him vote. The United States prosecuted the officials.

The Court, by an 8–1 vote, in an opinion by Chief Justice morrison r. waite, held the act of Congress unconstitutional because it swept too broadly: two sections did not "confine their operation to unlawful discriminations on account of race, etc." The Fifteenth Amendment provided that the right to vote should not be denied because of race, but Congress had overreached its powers by seeking to punish the denial on any ground. The Court voided the whole act because its sections were inseparable, yet refused to construe the broadly stated sections in terms of those sections that did refer to race. By its pinched interpretation of the amendment, the Court made it constitutionally possible for the states to deny the right to vote on any ground except race, thus allowing the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, good character tests, understanding clauses, and other devices to achieve black disfranchisement.

Leonard W. Levy

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