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UNITED STATES v. MISSISSIPPI ET AL.

decided: March 8, 1965.

UNITED STATES
v.
MISSISSIPPI ET AL.



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF MISSISSIPPI.

Warren, Black, Douglas, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, Goldberg

Author: Black

[ 380 U.S. Page 130]

 MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The United States by the Attorney General brought this action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Jackson Division, against the State of Mississippi, the three members of the Mississippi State Board of Election Commissioners, and six county Registrars of Voters. The complaint charged that the defendants and their agents had engaged and, unless restrained, would continue to engage in acts and practices hampering and destroying the right of Negro citizens of Mississippi to vote, in violation of 42 U. S. C. § 1971 (a) (1958 ed.), and of the Fourteenth*fn1 and Fifteenth*fn2 Amendments and Article I of the United States Constitution. Jurisdiction of the Court was invoked under 42 U. S. C. § 1971 (d) (1958 ed.) and 28 U. S. C. § 1345 (1958 ed.), and because the complaint charged that provisions of the state constitution and statutes pertaining to voter registration violated the United States Constitution,

[ 380 U.S. Page 131]

     the case was heard by three judges, pursuant to 28 U. S. C. § 2281 (1958 ed.). All the defendants moved to dismiss on the ground that the complaint failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted. In addition the State moved separately to dismiss on the ground that the United States had no power to make it a defendant in such a suit, and the three Election Commissioners answered that the complaint failed to show that they had enforced or that they had a duty to enforce the provisions of state law alleged to be unconstitutional. Five of the registrars moved for a severance and separate trials, and the four who were not residents of the Southern District of Mississippi, Jackson Division, moved for changes of venue to the respective districts and divisions where they lived. The District Court in an opinion by the late Circuit Judge Cameron, in which District Judge Cox joined,*fn3 dismissed the complaint on all the grounds which the defendants had assigned and also ruled that the registrars could not be sued jointly and that venue was improper as to the registrars who did not live in the district and division in which the court was sitting. 229 F.Supp. 925. Circuit Judge Brown dissented. We noted probable jurisdiction, 377 U.S. 988, and set the case down for argument immediately preceding Louisiana v. United States, post, p. 145.

The basic issue before us in this case is whether the dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted was proper. The United States alleges that in 1890 a majority of the qualified voters in Mississippi were Negroes, but that in that year a constitutional convention adopted a new state constitution, one of the chief purposes of which was, in the words of the complaint, to "restrict the Negro franchise and to establish and perpetuate white political supremacy and racial segregation

[ 380 U.S. Page 132]

     in Mississippi." Section 244 of that constitution established a new prerequisite for voting: that a person otherwise qualified be able to read any section of the Mississippi Constitution, or understand the same when read to him, or give a reasonable interpretation thereof.*fn4 This new requirement, coupled with the fact that until about 1952 Negroes were not eligible to vote in the primary election of the Democratic Party, victory in which was "tantamount to election," worked so well in keeping Negroes from voting, the complaint charges, that by 1899 the percentage of qualified voters in the State who were Negroes had declined from over 50% to about 9%, and by 1954 only about 5% of the Negroes of voting age in Mississippi were registered.

By the 1950's a much higher proportion of Negroes of voting age in Mississippi was literate than had been the case in 1890, and since a decision of the Fifth Circuit in 1951*fn5 had pointed out that the 1890 requirement allowed persons to vote if they met any one of the three alternative requirements, the State took steps to multiply the barriers keeping its Negro citizens from voting. In 1954 the state constitution was amended to provide that thereafter an applicant for registration had to be able to read and copy in writing any section of the Mississippi Constitution, and give a reasonable interpretation of that section to the county registrar, and, in addition, demonstrate to the registrar "a reasonable understanding

[ 380 U.S. Page 133]

     of the duties and obligations of citizenship under a constitutional form of government."*fn6 The complaint charges that these provisions lend themselves to misuse and to discriminatory administration because they leave the registrars completely at large, free to be as demanding or as lenient as they choose in judging an applicant's understanding of the state constitution and of the "duties and obligations of citizenship," and that since the adoption of this amendment the registrars have in fact applied standards which varied in difficulty according to whether an applicant was white or colored.

In 1960 the state constitution was amended to add a new voting qualification of "good moral character,"*fn7 an addition which it is charged was to serve as yet another device to give a registrar power to permit an applicant to vote or not, depending solely on the registrar's own whim or caprice, ungoverned by any legal standard. A statute also passed in 1960*fn8 repealed a prior Mississippi statute which had provided that application forms be retained as permanent public records, and adopted a new rule that unless appeal is taken from an adverse ruling and no new application is made prior to final judgment on that

[ 380 U.S. Page 134]

     appeal, registrars no longer need keep any record made in connection with the application of anyone to register to vote. This law is alleged to be in direct violation of Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which requires that records of voting registration be kept.*fn9 The complaint alleged further that the defendants had destroyed and unless restrained by the court would continue to destroy these records. Finally, it was alleged that in 1962 the Mississippi Legislature adopted a package of legislation*fn10 affecting registration, the purpose and effect of which was to "deter, hinder, prevent, delay and harass Negroes and to make it more difficult for Negroes in their efforts to become registered voters, to facilitate discrimination against Negroes, and to make it more difficult for the United States to protect the right of all its citizens to vote without distinction of race or color." These 1962 laws provide, among other things, that application forms must be filled out "properly and responsively" by the applicant without any assistance, and that a registrar may not tell an applicant why he failed the test because

[ 380 U.S. Page 135]

     to do so might constitute assistance, and they allegedly give registrars even greater discretion to deny Negroes the right to register on ...


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