Yarbrough, Ex Parte 110 U.S. 651 (1884)

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YARBROUGH, EX PARTE 110 U.S. 651 (1884)

This is the only nineteenth-century case in which the Supreme Court sustained the power of the United States to punish private persons for interfering with voting rights. Yarbrough and other members of the Ku Klux Klan assaulted a black citizen who voted in a congressional election. The United States convicted the Klansmen under a federal statute making it a crime to conspire to injure or intimidate any citizen in the free exercise of any right secured to him by the laws of the United States. The Court, in a unanimous opinion by Justice samuel f. miller, held that the United States "must have the power to protect the elections on which its existence depends, from violence and corruption." Miller's reasoning is confused. Congress had passed the statute in contemplation of its power to enforce the fourteenth amendment. In united states v. cruikshank (1876) the Court had ruled that the same statute could not reach private, rather than state, actions. Miller thought the situation different when Congress sought to protect rights constitutionally conferred, and he stressed Article I, section 4, which empowered Congress to alter state regulations for the election of members of Congress. But that provision did not apply here. In united states v. reese (1876) the Court had ruled that the fifteenth amendment did not confer the right to vote on anyone, but only a right to be free from racial discrimination in voting. Here, however, Miller ruled that "under some circumstances," the Fifteenth Amendment, which was not the basis of the statute, may operate as the source of a right to vote. In the end Miller declared, "But it is a waste of time to seek for specific sources of the power to pass these laws." In james v. bowman (1903), involving the right to vote in a federal election, the Court held unconstitutional an act of Congress without reference to Yarbrough.

Leonard W. Levy