Guinn v. United States
Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915), was a United States Supreme Court decision that found certain grandfather clause exemptions to literacy tests for voting rights to be unconstitutional. Though these grandfather clauses were superficially race neutral, they were designed to protect the voting rights of illiterate white voters while disenfranchising African-American voters.
|Guinn v. United States|
|Argued October 17, 1913|
Decided June 21, 1915
|Full case name||Frank Guinn and J. J. Beal v. United States|
|Citations||238 U.S. 347 (more)|
|Prior||Certificate from the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit|
|A state statute drafted in such a way as to serve no rational purpose other than to disadvantage the right of African-American citizens to vote violated the 15th Amendment.|
|Majority||White, joined by McKenna, Holmes, Day, Hughes, Van Devanter, Lamar, Pitney|
|McReynolds took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.|
|U.S. Const. amend. XV|
The 1870 ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution barred each state from denying the right to vote on the basis of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." In response, several Southern states, including Oklahoma, established constitutional provisions designed to effectively disenfranchise African-American voters without explicitly violating the Fifteenth Amendment. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Edward Douglass White held that Oklahoma's grandfather clause was "repugnant to the Fifteenth Amendment and therefore null and void." The decision had little immediate impact, as Southern legislatures found other methods to disenfranchise African-Americans.
When Oklahoma was admitted to the Union in 1907, it had adopted a constitution which allowed men of all races to vote, in compliance with the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. However, legislators soon passed an amendment to the Constitution that required voters to satisfy a literacy test. A potential voter could be exempted from the literacy requirement if he could prove either that his grandfathers had been voters or had been citizens of some foreign nation, or had served as soldiers before 1866. As a result, illiterate whites were able to vote — but not illiterate blacks, whose grandfathers had almost all been slaves and therefore barred from voting or serving as soldiers before 1866. Most states that had permitted free people of color to vote in early decades of the 19th century had rescinded that right before 1840. Thus, even African Americans who might have descended from families free before the Civil War could not get an exemption from literacy tests. In practice these were highly subjective, administered by white registrars who discriminated against black voters. Oklahoma's amendment followed those of numerous Southern states that had similar grandfather clauses in their constitutions.
The Oklahoma amendment provided:
- "No person shall be registered as an elector of this state or be allowed to vote in any election held herein, unless he be able to read and write any section of the Constitution of the state of Oklahoma; but no person who was, on January 1, 1866, or any time prior thereto, entitled to vote under any form of government, or who at that time resided in some foreign nation, and no lineal descendant of such person, shall be denied the right to register and vote because of his inability to so read and write sections of such Constitution. Precinct election inspectors having in charge the registration of electors shall enforce the provisions of this section at the time of registration, provided registration be required. Should registration be dispensed with, the provisions of this section shall be enforced by the precinct election officers when electors apply for ballots to vote."
The amendment came into force before the election of November 8, 1910 was held. During that election, certain election officers refused to allow black citizens to vote; those officers were indicted and convicted of fraudulently disenfranchishing black voters, in violation of the 15th Amendment and in violation of Oklahoma State Law.
The case was argued before the Court on October 17, 1913. It represented the second appearance before the Court of John W. Davis as United States Solicitor General and the first case in which the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a brief. The NAACP was increasingly active in such court challenges, eventually founding the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to support this work.
The Supreme Court handed down its decision in Guinn v. United States together with Myers v. Anderson, which concerned a grandfather clause in the Maryland constitution. In its decision handed down on June 21, 1915, the Court ruled "the grandfather clauses in the Maryland and Oklahoma constitutions to be repugnant to the Fifteenth Amendment and therefore null and void." In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Edward Douglass White held that the grandfather clause was clearly designed to interfere with the voting rights protections of the Fifteenth Amendment even though it was racially neutral on it face.
In addition to Oklahoma and Virginia, the Supreme Court's holding affected similar provisions in the constitutions of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia. Nonetheless, decision had little short-term effect as Southern states found other legal strategies to disenfranchise African-American voters. In Oklahoma, the state legislature immediately passed a new statute restricting voter registration. It provided that "all persons, except those who voted in 1914, who were qualified to vote in 1916 but who failed to register between April 30 and May 11, 1916, with some exceptions for sick and absent persons who were given an additional brief period to register, would be perpetually disenfranchised."
Twenty-three years later, the Supreme Court struck down the statute which Oklahoma had passed to replace the grandfather clause in Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268 (1939). The Court concluded that "the means chosen as substitutes for the invalidated 'grandfather clause' were themselves invalid under the Fifteenth Amendment. They operated unfairly against the very class on whose behalf the protection of the Constitution was here successfully invoked."
- Shoemaker, Rebecca S. (2004). The White Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. ABC-CLIO. pp. 142–144. ISBN 9781576079737.
- Franklin, Moss p.353
- Valelly, Richard M. (2004). The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 141. ISBN 0-226-84528-1.