C, Classic, United States v.,
Edited By: Kermit L. Hall, James W. Ely Jr., Joel B. Grossman
Edited By: Kermit L. Hall
Classic, United States v.,
313 U.S. 299 (1941), argued 7 Apr. 1941, decided 26 May 1941 by vote of 5 to 3; Stone for the Court, Douglas in dissent. Two Supreme Court decisions before *World War II allowed white Democrats in the one-party South to disenfranchise black citizens by denying them primary ballots. Newberry v. United States (1921) concluded that Congress lacked power under Article I, section 4, of the Constitution to regulate party primaries. *Grovey v. Townsend (1935) held that a state party convention’s exclusion of African-Americans from primary participation constituted private rather than *state action and, therefore, the *Fourteenth and *Fifteenth Amendments did not apply.
The newly created Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department brought this successful test case, establishing federal authority to redress corruption and discrimination in the state electoral process. The government charged the Louisiana election commissioners with willfully altering and falsely counting congressional primary election ballots in violation of federal civil rights statutes.
The Supreme Court overruled Newberry to hold that Congress’s power under Article I, section 4, to regulate “elections” includes the power to regulate primaries when state law makes the primary an integral part of the procedure for choosing candidates for federal office. The Court also reasoned that Article I, section 2, guarantees citizens the right to *vote in congressional primaries and to have their votes properly counted; moreover, this right is protected against interference by individual as well as state action. Although Grovey was not mentioned, the reasoning in Classic undercuts the rationale of that decision to make inevitable its overruling in *Smith v. Allwright (1944), which held that primary (p. 183) elections for either federal or state office were subject to the Constitution. This also was an early precedent in Screws v. United States (1945) and Monroe v. Pape (1961) for the proposition that an official’s misconduct in violation of state law can still be “under color of state law” within the scope of federal civil rights statutes.
Thomas E. Baker