383 U.S. 301 (1966)

No. 22, Orig.
Argued January 17-18, 1966.
Decided March 7, 1966.

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 [383 U.S. 301, 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.

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

By leave of the Court, 382 U.S. 898 , South Carolina has filed a bill of complaint, seeking a declaration that selected provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 19651 violate the Federal Constitution, and asking for an injunction against enforcement of these provisions by the Attorney General. Original jurisdiction is founded on the presence of a controversy between a State and a citizen of another State under Art. III, 2, of the Constitution. See Georgia v. Pennsylvania R. Co., 324 U.S. 439 . Because no issues of fact were raised in the complaint, and because of South Carolina's desire to obtain a ruling prior to its primary elections in June 1966, we dispensed with appointment of a special master and expedited our hearing of the case.

Recognizing that the questions presented were of urgent concern to the entire country, we invited all of the States to participate in this proceeding as friends of the Court. A majority responded by submitting or joining in briefs on the merits, some supporting South Carolina and others the Attorney General. Seven of these States [383 U.S. 301, 308]   also requested and received permission to argue the case orally at our hearing. Without exception despite the emotional overtones of the proceeding, the briefs and oral arguments were temperate, lawyerlike and constructive. All viewpoints on the issues have been fully developed, and this additional assistance has been most helpful to the Court.

The Voting Rights Act was designed by Congress to banish the blight of racial discrimination in voting, which has infected the electoral process in parts of our country for nearly a century. The Act creates stringent new remedies for voting discrimination where it persists on a pervasive scale, and in addition the statute strengthens existing remedies for pockets of voting discrimination elsewhere in the country. Congress assumed the power to prescribe these remedies from Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment, which authorizes the National Legislature to effectuate by "appropriate" measures the constitutional prohibition against racial discrimination in voting. We hold that the sections of the Act which are properly before us are an appropriate means for carrying out Congress' constitutional responsibilities and are consonant with all other provisions of the Constitution. We therefore deny South Carolina's request that enforcement of these sections of the Act be enjoined.


The constitutional propriety of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 must be judged with reference to the historical experience which it reflects. Before enacting the measure, Congress explored with great care the problem of racial discrimination in voting. The House and Senate Committees on the Judiciary each held hearings for nine days and received testimony from a total of 67 witnesses.3 [383 U.S. 301, 309] More than three full days were consumed discussing the bill on the floor of the House, while the debate in the Senate covered 26 days in all.4 At the close of these deliberations, the verdict of both chambers was overwhelming. The House approved the bill by a vote of 328-74, and the measure passed the Senate by a margin of 79-18.

Two points emerge vividly from the voluminous legislative history of the Act contained in the committee hearings and floor debates. First: Congress felt itself confronted by an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution. Second: Congress concluded that the unsuccessful remedies which it had prescribed in the past would have to be replaced by sterner and more elaborate measures in order to satisfy the clear commands of the Fifteenth Amendment. We pause here to summarize the majority reports of the House and Senate Committees, which document in considerable detail the factual basis for these reactions by Congress.5 See H. R. Rep. No. 439, 89th Cong., 1st Sess., 8-16 (hereinafter cited as House Report); S. Rep. No. 162, pt. 3, 89th Cong., 1st Sess., 3-16 (hereinafter cited as Senate Report). [383 U.S. 301, 310]

* * *


The Voting Rights Act of 1965 reflects Congress' firm intention to rid the country of racial discrimination in voting. The heart of the Act is a complex scheme of stringent remedies aimed at areas where voting discrimination has been most flagrant. Section [] 4 (a)-(d) lays down a formula defining the States and political subdivisions to which these new remedies apply. The first of the remedies, contained in Section 4 (a), is the suspension of literacy tests and similar voting qualifications for a period of five years from the last occurrence of substantial voting discrimination. Section 5 prescribes a second [383 U.S. 301, 316]   remedy, the suspension of all new voting regulations pending review by federal authorities to determine whether their use would perpetuate voting discrimination. The third remedy, covered in 6 (b), 7, 9, and 13 (a), is the assignment of federal examiners on certification by the Attorney General to list qualified applicants who are thereafter entitled to vote in all elections.

Other provisions of the Act prescribe subsidiary cures for persistent voting discrimination. Section 8 authorizes the appointment of federal poll-watchers in places to which federal examiners have already been assigned. Section 10 (d) excuses those made eligible to vote in sections of the country covered by Section 4 (b) of the Act from paying accumulated past poll taxes for state and local elections. Section 12 (e) provides for balloting by persons denied access to the polls in areas where federal examiners have been appointed.

The remaining remedial portions of the Act are aimed at voting discrimination in any area of the country where it may occur. Section 2 broadly prohibits the use of voting rules to abridge exercise of the franchise on racial grounds. Sections 3, 6 (a), and 13 (b) strengthen existing procedures for attacking voting discrimination by means of litigation. Section 4 (e) excuses citizens educated in American schools conducted in a foreign language from passing English-language literacy tests. Section 10 (a)-(c) facilitates constitutional litigation challenging the imposition of all poll taxes for state and local elections. Sections 11 and 12 (a)-(d) authorize civil and criminal sanctions against interference with the exercise of rights guaranteed by the Act.

* * *


These provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are challenged on the fundamental ground that they exceed the powers of Congress and encroach on an area reserved to the States by the Constitution. South Carolina and certain of the amici curiae also attack specific sections of the Act for more particular reasons. They argue that the coverage formula prescribed in 4 (a)-(d) violates the principle of the equality of States, denies due process by employing an invalid presumption and by barring judicial review of administrative findings, constitutes a forbidden bill of attainder, and impairs the separation of powers by adjudicating guilt through legislation. They claim that the review of new voting rules required in 5 infringes Article III by directing the District Court to issue advisory opinions. They contend that the assignment of federal examiners authorized in 6(b) abridges due process by precluding judicial review of administrative findings and impairs the separation of powers by giving the Attorney General judicial functions; also that the challenge procedure prescribed in 9 denies due process on account of its speed. Finally, South Carolina and certain of the amici curiae maintain that 4(a) and 5, buttressed by 14(b) of the Act, abridge due process by limiting litigation to a distant forum.

* * *

The ground rules for resolving this question are clear. The language and purpose of the Fifteenth Amendment, the prior decisions construing its several provisions, and the general doctrines of constitutional interpretation, all point to one fundamental principle. As against the reserved powers of the States, Congress may use any rational means to effectuate the constitutional prohibition of racial discrimination in voting. Cf. our rulings last Term, sustaining Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, 379 U.S. 241, 258 -259, 261-262; and Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 294, 303 -304. We turn now to a more detailed description of the standards which govern our review of the Act. [383 U.S. 301, 325]


Section 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment declares that "[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." This declaration has always been treated as self-executing and has repeatedly been construed, without further legislative specification, to invalidate state voting qualifications or procedures which are discriminatory on their face or in practice. See Neal v. Delaware, 103 U.S. 370 ; Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 ; Myers v. Anderson, 238 U.S. 368 ; Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268 ; Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 ; Schnell v. Davis, 336 U.S. 933 ; Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461 ; United States v. Thomas, 362 U.S. 58 ; Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339 ; Alabama v. United States, 371 U.S. 37 ; Louisiana v. United States, 380 U.S. 145 . These decisions have been rendered with full respect for the general rule, reiterated last Term in Carrington v. Rash, 380 U.S. 89, 91 , that States "have broad powers to determine the conditions under which the right of suffrage may be exercised." The gist of the matter is that the Fifteenth Amendment supersedes contrary exertions of state power. "When a State exercises power wholly within the domain of state interest, it is insulated from federal judicial review. But such insulation is not carried over when state power is used as an instrument for circumventing a federally protected right." Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S., at 347 .

South Carolina contends that the cases cited above are precedents only for the authority of the judiciary to strike down state statutes and procedures - that to allow an exercise of this authority by Congress would be to rob the courts of their rightful constitutional role. On the contrary, Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment expressly declares that "Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." By adding this [383 U.S. 301, 326] authorization, the Framers indicated that Congress was to be chiefly responsible for implementing the rights created in Section 1. "It is the power of Congress which has been enlarged. Congress is authorized to enforce the prohibitions by appropriate legislation. Some legislation is contemplated to make the [Civil War] amendments fully effective." Ex parte Virginia, 100 U.S. 339, 345. Accordingly, in addition to the courts, Congress has full remedial powers to effectuate the constitutional prohibition against racial discrimination in voting.

Congress has repeatedly exercised these powers in the past, and its enactments have repeatedly been upheld. For recent examples, see the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which was sustained in United States v. Raines, 362 U.S. 17 ; United States v. Thomas, supra; and Hannah v. Larche, 363 U.S. 420 ; and the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which was upheld in Alabama v. United States, supra; Louisiana v. United States, supra; and United States v. Mississippi, 380 U.S. 128 . On the rare occasions when the Court has found an unconstitutional exercise of these powers, in its opinion Congress had attacked evils not comprehended by the Fifteenth Amendment. See United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214 ; James v. Bowman, 190 U.S. 127 .

The basic test to be applied in a case involving Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment is the same as in all cases concerning the express powers of Congress with relation to the reserved powers of the States. Chief Justice Marshall laid down the classic formulation, 50 years before the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified:

"Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional." McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 421. [383 U.S. 301, 327]

The Court has subsequently echoed his language in describing each of the Civil War Amendments:

"Whatever legislation is appropriate, that is, adapted to carry out the objects the amendments have in view, whatever tends to enforce submission to the prohibitions they contain, and to secure to all persons the enjoyment of perfect equality of civil rights and the equal protection of the laws against State denial or invasion, if not prohibited, is brought within the domain of congressional power." Ex parte Virginia, 100 U.S., at 345 -346.

This language was again employed, nearly 50 years later, with reference to Congress' related authority under Section 2 of the Eighteenth Amendment. James Everard's Breweries v. Day, 265 U.S. 545, 558 -559.

We therefore reject South Carolina's argument that Congress may appropriately do no more than to forbid violations of the Fifteenth Amendment in general terms - that the task of fashioning specific remedies or of applying them to particular localities must necessarily be left entirely to the courts. Congress is not circumscribed by any such artificial rules under Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment. In the oft-repeated words of Chief Justice Marshall, referring to another specific legislative authorization in the Constitution, "This power, like all others vested in Congress, is complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations, other than are prescribed in the constitution." Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 1, 196.

* * * *

After enduring nearly a century of widespread resistance to the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress has marshaled an array of potent weapons against the evil, with authority in the Attorney General to employ them effectively. Many of the areas directly affected by this development have indicated their willingness to abide by any restraints legitimately imposed upon them.51 We here hold that the portions of the Voting Rights Act properly before us are a valid means for carrying out the commands of the Fifteenth Amendment. Hopefully, millions of non-white Americans will not be able to participate for the first time on an equal basis in the government under which they live. We may finally look forward to the day when truly "[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

The bill of complaint is Dismissed.


179 Stat. 437, 42 U.S.C. 1973 (1964 ed., Supp. I).

2States supporting South Carolina: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia. States supporting the Attorney General: California, Illinois, and Massachusetts, joined by Hawaii, Indiana, [383 U.S. 301, 308]   Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

3See Hearings on H. R. 6400 before Subcommittee No. 5 of the House Committee on the Judiciary, 89th Cong., 1st Sess. (hereinafter cited as House Hearings); Hearings on S. 1564 before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 89th Cong., 1st Sess. (hereinafter cited as Senate Hearings).

4See the Congressional Record for April 22, 23, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30; May 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 24, 25, 26; July 6, 7, 8, 9; August 3 and 4, 1965.

5The facts contained in these reports are confirmed, among other sources, by United States v. Louisiana, 225 F. Supp. 353, 363-385 (Wisdom, J.), aff'd, 380 U.S. 145 ; United States v. Mississippi, 229 F. Supp. 925, 983-997 (dissenting opinion of Brown, J.), rev'd and rem'd, 380 U.S. 128 ; United States v. Alabama, 192 F. Supp. 677 [383 U.S. 301, 310]   (Johnson, J.), aff'd, 304 F.2d 583, aff'd, 371 U.S. 37 ; Comm'n on Civil Rights, Voting in Mississippi; 1963 Comm'n on Civil Rights Rep., Voting; 1961 Comm'n on Civil Rights Rep., Voting, pt. 2; 1959 Comm'n on Civil Rights Rep., pt. 2. See generally Christopher, The Constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 18 Stan. L. Rev. 1; Note, Federal Protection of Negro Voting Rights, 51 Va. L. Rev. 1051.

51See Comm'n on Civil Rights, The Voting Rights Act (1965).


Mr. Justice Black, concurring and dissenting.

* * * *

Though, as I have said, I agree with most of the Court's conclusions, I dissent from its holding that every part of 5 of the Act is constitutional. Section 4 (a), to which 5 is linked, suspends for five years all literacy tests and similar devices in those States coming within the formula of 4 (b). Section 5 goes on to provide that a State covered by 4 (b) can in no way amend its constitution or laws relating to voting without first trying to persuade the Attorney General of the United States or the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia that the new proposed laws do not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying the right to vote to citizens on account of their race or color. I think this section is unconstitutional on at least two grounds. [383 U.S. 301, 357]  

(a) The Constitution gives federal courts jurisdiction over cases and controversies only. If it can be said that any case or controversy arises under this section which gives the District Court for the District of Columbia jurisdiction to approve or reject state laws or constitutional amendments, then the case or controversy must be between a State and the United States Government. But it is hard for me to believe that a justiciable controversy can arise in the constitutional sense from a desire by the United States Government or some of its officials to determine in advance what legislative provisions a State may enact or what constitutional amendments it may adopt. If this dispute between the Federal Government and the States amounts to a case or controversy it is a far cry from the traditional constitutional notion of a case or controversy as a dispute over the meaning of enforceable laws or the manner in which they are applied. And if by this section Congress has created a case or controversy, and I do not believe it has, then it seems to me that the most appropriate judicial forum for settling these important questions is this Court acting under its original Art. III, Section 2, jurisdiction to try cases in which a State is a party.1 At least a trial in this Court would treat the States with the dignity to which they should be entitled as constituent members of our Federal Union.

* * * *

(b) My second and more basic objection to Section 5 is that Congress has here exercised its power under Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment through the adoption of means that conflict with the most basic principles of the Constitution. As the Court says the limitations of the power granted under Section 2 are the same as the limitations imposed on the exercise of any of the powers expressly granted Congress by the Constitution. The classic formulation of these constitutional limitations was stated by Chief Justice Marshall when he said in McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 421, "Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional." (Emphasis added.) Section 5, by providing that some of the States cannot pass state laws or adopt state constitutional amendments without first being compelled to beg federal authorities to approve their policies, so distorts our constitutional structure of government as to render any distinction drawn in the Constitution between state and federal power almost meaningless. One [383 U.S. 301, 359]   of the most basic premises upon which our structure of government was founded was that the Federal Government was to have certain specific and limited powers and no others, and all other power was to be reserved either "to the States respectively, or to the people." Certainly if all the provisions of our Constitution which limit the power of the Federal Government and reserve other power to the States are to mean anything, they mean at least that the States have power to pass laws and amend their constitutions without first sending their officials hundreds of miles away to beg federal authorities to approve them.2 Moreover, it seems to me that Section 5 which gives federal officials power to veto state laws they do not like is in direct conflict with the clear command of our Constitution that "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government." I cannot help but believe that the inevitable effect of any such law which forces any one of the States to entreat federal authorities in far-away places for approval of local laws before they can become effective is to [383 U.S. 301, 360]   create the impression that the State or States treated in this way are little more than conquered provinces. And if one law concerning voting can make the States plead for this approval by a distant federal court or the United States Attorney General, other laws on different subjects can force the States to seek the advance approval not only of the Attorney General but of the President himself or any other chosen members of his staff. It is inconceivable to me that such a radical degradation of state power was intended in any of the provisions of our Constitution or its Amendments. Of course I do not mean to cast any doubt whatever upon the indisputable power of the Federal Government to invalidate a state law once enacted and operative on the ground that it intrudes into the area of supreme federal power. But the Federal Government has heretofore always been content to exercise this power to protect federal supremacy by authorizing its agents to bring lawsuits against state officials once an operative state law has created an actual case and controversy. A federal law which assumes the power to compel the States to submit in advance any proposed legislation they have for approval by federal agents approaches dangerously near to wiping the States out as useful and effective units in the government of our country. I cannot agree to any constitutional interpretation that leads inevitably to such a result.

I see no reason to read into the Constitution meanings it did not have when it was adopted and which have not been put into it since. The proceedings of the original Constitutional Convention show beyond all doubt that the power to veto or negative state laws was denied Congress. On several occasions proposals were submitted to the convention to grant this power to Congress. These proposals were debated extensively and on every occasion when submitted for vote they were overwhelmingly rejected.3  [383 U.S. 301, 361]   The refusal to give Congress this extraordinary power to veto state laws was based on the belief that if such power resided in Congress the States would be helpless to function as effective governments.4 Since that time neither the Fifteenth Amendment nor any other Amendment to the Constitution has given the slightest indication of a purpose to grant Congress the power to veto state laws either by itself or its agents. Nor does any provision in the Constitution endow the federal courts with power to participate with state legislative bodies in determining what state policies shall be enacted into law. The judicial power to invalidate a law in a case or controversy after the law has become effective is a long way from the power to prevent a State from passing a law. I cannot agree with the Court that Congress - denied a power in itself to veto a state law - can delegate this same power to the Attorney General or the District Court for the District of Columbia. For the effect on the States is the same in both cases - they cannot pass their laws without sending their agents to the City of Washington to plead to federal officials for their advance approval.



1If 14 (b) of the Act by stating that no court other than the District Court for the District of Columbia shall issue a judgment under 5 is an attempt to limit the constitutionally created original jurisdiction of this Court, then I think that section is also unconstitutional.

2The requirement that States come to Washington to have their laws judged is reminiscent of the deeply resented practices used by the English crown in dealing with the American colonies. One of the abuses complained of most bitterly was the King's practice of holding legislative and judicial proceedings in inconvenient and distant places. The signers of the Declaration of Independence protested that the King "has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures," and they objected to the King's "transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences." These abuses were fresh in the minds of the Framers of our Constitution and in part caused them to include in Art. 3, 2, the provision that criminal trials "shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed." Also included in the Sixth Amendment was the requirement that a defendant in a criminal prosecution be tried by a "jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law."

3See Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 as reported by James Madison in Documents Illustrative of the Formation of the Union of the American States (1927), pp. 605, 789, 856.

- See more at: