South Carolina v. Katzenbach,
383 U.S. 301 (1966), argued 17–18 Jan. 1966, decided 17 Mar. 1966 by vote of 8 to 1; Warren for the Court, Black dissenting in part. This case, which sustained the constitutionality of the *Voting Rights Act of 1965, is a milestone in the development of congressional power to enforce the *Civil War Amendments. It established Congress’s power to proscribe a class of suspect practices without finding that in every instance the practices would be held by the judiciary to be unconstitutional. In sustaining the 1965 act, South Carolina v. Katzenbach contributed to the enfranchisement of millions on nonwhite Americans.
In the Voting Rights Act, Congress relied on its powers under section 2 of the *Fifteenth Amendment, which authorizes it by appropriate measures to enforce the amendment’s prohibition on racial discrimination in voting. The act prescribed a formula defining the state and political subdivisions to which its novel remedies applied. The remedies applied to a state that maintained a “test or device” as a prerequisite to voting, and that had low voter registration or voting rates in the 1964 presidential election. South Carolina was covered by the act and thus was temporarily barred from enforcing a literacy test and a property ownership requirement. New voting requirements could be imposed only if submitted to the attorney general and not disapproved by him. Coverage by the act also authorized federal appointment of voting examiners to place on the state and local voting rolls voters who might otherwise not be listed because of their race.
In an *original jurisdiction suit, South Carolina challenged the act’s coverage formula, the suspension of voting requirements, the requirement of federal review of new voting requirements, and the authorization of appointment of federal voting examiners. It also asserted that Congress’s section 2 power authorized nothing more than legislation forbidding violations of the Fifteenth Amendment in general terms, with remedies necessarily left entirely to the courts. Chief Justice Earl (p. 942) *Warren’s opinion rejected all these challenges. His opinion addressed both the general power of Congress to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment and each of the challenged provisions.
With respect to the general scope of Congress’s section 2 power, the Court relied on the classic statement of congressional legislative power in *McCulloch v. Maryland (1819). Legitimate ends not banned by the Constitution may be pursued through all appropriate means. Congress’s findings that case-by-case litigation proved ineffective in dealing with widespread discriminatory voting practices warranted a sweeping measure not dependent for application on findings of specific discrimination. As Warren wrote, “Congress might well decide to shift the inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims” (p. 328). The Voting Rights Act’s selective geographic coverage was permissible because voting discrimination, Congress found, occurred primarily in certain areas of the country. Congress could limit its attention to the most troublesome geographic areas.
In attacking the suspension of existing voting requirements, South Carolina relied on the statement in *Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections (1959) that literacy tests and related devices themselves violate the Fifteenth Amendment. The Court distinguished Lassiter on the ground that the Voting Rights Act addressed discriminatory use of tests, a use Lassiter itself questioned.
The Court acknowledged that suspension of new voting regulations pending review by federal authorities was an uncommon exercise of congressional power. But Congress knew of past elaborate strategies employed by states to perpetuate voting discrimination despite federal court decrees prohibiting such practices. Congress reasonably feared similar maneuvers in response to the 1965 act and was thus authorized to attack the problem in a decisive manner. The use of federal voting examiners to list qualified voters appropriately countered procedural tactics used to deny African-Americans the franchise.
South Carolina v. Katzenbach served as an important precedent in *Katzenbach v. Morgan (1966). The breadth of legislative discretion granted Congress in enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment paved the way for similar treatment of Congress’s power under the *Fourteenth Amendment. In Morgan, the Court rejected New York’s argument that Congress may abrogate state laws only if they conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment. These cases, along with *Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. (1968), contributed to a major revitalization of Congress’s power to enforce the Civil War Amendments against racial discrimination.
See also race and racism; vote, right to.
Ward E. Y. Elliott, The Supreme Court’s Role in Voting Rights Disputes (1974).