This case is before us on a certificate drawn by the court below as the basis of two questions which are submitted for our solution in order to enable the court correctly to decide issues in a case which it has under consideration. Those issues arose from an indictment and conviction of certain election officers of the State of Oklahoma (the plaintiffs in error) of the crime of having conspired unlawfully, wilfully and fraudulently to deprive certain negro citizens, on account of their race and color, of a right to vote at a general election held in that State in 1910, they being entitled to vote under the state law and which right was secured to them by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The prosecution was directly concerned with § 5508, Rev. Stat., now § 19 of the Penal Code which is as follows:
"If two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same, or if two or more persons go in disguise on the highway, or on the premises of another, with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege so secured, they shall be fined not more than five thousand dollars and imprisoned not more than ten years, and shall, moreover, be thereafter ineligible to any office, or place of honor, profit, or trust created by the Constitution or laws of the United States."
Suffrage in Oklahoma was regulated by § 1, Article III of the Constitution under which the State was admitted into the Union. Shortly after the admission there was submitted an amendment to the Constitution making a radical change in that article which was adopted prior to November 8, 1910. At an election for members of Congress which followed the adoption of this Amendment certain election officers in enforcing its provisions refused to allow certain negro citizens to vote who were clearly entitled to vote under the provision of the Constitution under which the State was admitted, that is, before the amendment, and who, it is equally clear, were not entitled to vote under the provision of the suffrage amendment if that amendment governed. The persons so excluded based their claim of right to vote upon the original Constitution and upon the assertion that the suffrage amendment was void because in conflict with the prohibitions of the Fifteenth Amendment and therefore afforded no basis for denying them the right guaranteed and protected by that Amendment. And upon the assumption that this claim was justified and that the election officers had violated the Fifteenth Amendment in denying the right to vote, this prosecution, as we have said, was commenced. At the trial the court instructed that by the Fifteenth Amendment the States were prohibited from discriminating as to suffrage because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude and that Congress in pursuance of the authority which was conferred upon it by the very terms of the Amendment to enforce its provisions had enacted the following (Rev. Stat., § 2004):
"All citizens of the United States who are otherwise qualified by law to vote at any election by the people of any State, Territory, district, . . . municipality, . . . or
It then instructed as follows:
"The State amendment which imposes the test of reading and writing any section of the State constitution as a condition to voting to persons not on or prior to January 1, 1866, entitled to vote under some form of government, or then resident in some foreign nation, or a lineal descendant of such person, is not valid, but you may consider it in so far as it was in good faith relied and acted upon by the defendants in ascertaining their intent and motive. If you believe from the evidence that the defendants formed a common design and cooperated in denying the colored voters of Union Township precinct, or any of them, entitled to vote, the privilege of voting, but this was due to a mistaken belief sincerely entertained by the defendants as to the qualifications of the voters — that is, if the motive actuating the defendants was honest, and they simply erred in the conception of their duty — then the criminal intent requisite to their guilt is wanting and they cannot be convicted. On the other hand, if they knew or believed these colored persons were entitled to vote, and their purpose was to unfairly and fraudulently deny the right of suffrage to them, or any of them entitled thereto, on account of their race and color, then their purpose was a corrupt one, and they cannot be shielded by their official positions."
The questions which the court below asks are these:
"1. Was the amendment to the constitution of Oklahoma, heretofore set forth, valid?
"2. Was that amendment void in so far as it attempted to debar from the right or privilege of voting for a qualified
As these questions obviously relate to the provisions concerning suffrage in the original constitution and the amendment to those provisions which forms the basis of the controversy, we state the text of both. The original clause so far as material was this:
"The qualified electors of the State shall be male citizens of the United States, male citizens of the State, and male persons of Indian descent native of the United States, who are over the age of twenty-one years, who have resided in the State one year, in the county six months, and in the election precinct thirty days, next preceding the election at which any such elector offers to vote."
And this is the amendment:
"No person shall be registered as an elector of this State or be allowed to vote in any election 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 at 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
Considering the questions in the light of the text of the suffrage amendment it is apparent that they are twofold because of the twofold character of the provisions as to suffrage which the amendment contains. The first question is concerned with that provision of the amendment which fixes a standard by which the right to vote is given upon conditions existing on January 1, 1866, and relieves those coming within that standard from the standard based on a literacy test which is established by the other provision of the amendment. The second question asks as to the validity of the literacy test and how far, if intrinsically valid, it would continue to exist and be operative in the event the standard based upon January 1, 1866, should be held to be illegal as violative of the Fifteenth Amendment.
To avoid that which is unnecessary let us at once consider and sift the propositions of the United States on the one hand and of the plaintiffs in error on the other, in order to reach with precision the real and final question to be considered. The United States insists that the provision of the amendment which fixes a standard based upon January 1, 1866, is repugnant to the prohibitions of the Fifteenth Amendment because in substance and effect that provision, if not an express, is certainly an open repudiation of the Fifteenth Amendment and hence the provision in question was stricken with nullity in its inception by the self-operative force of the Amendment, and as the result of the same power was at all subsequent times devoid of any vitality whatever.
For the plaintiffs in error on the other hand it is said the States have the power to fix standards for suffrage and that power was not taken away by the Fifteenth Amendment but only limited to the extent of the prohibitions which that Amendment established. This being true, as the
On the other hand the United States denies the relevancy of these contentions. It says state power to provide for suffrage is not disputed, although, of course, the authority of the Fifteenth Amendment and the limit on that power which it imposes is insisted upon. Hence, no assertion denying the right of a State to exert judgment and discretion in fixing the qualification of suffrage is advanced and no right to question the motive of the State in establishing a standard as to such subjects under such circumstances or to review or supervise the same is relied upon and no power to destroy an otherwise valid exertion of authority upon the mere ultimate operation of the power exercised is asserted. And applying these principles to the very case in hand the argument of the
Looking comprehensively at these contentions of the parties it plainly results that the conflict between them is
The questions then are: (1) Giving to the propositions of the Government the interpretation which the Government puts upon them and assuming that the suffrage provision has the significance which the Government assumes it to have, is that provision as a matter of law repugnant to the Fifteenth Amendment? which leads us of course to consider the operation and effect of the Fifteenth Amendment. (2) If yes, has the assailed amendment in so far as it fixes a standard for voting as of January 1, 1866, the meaning which the Government attributes to it? which leads us to analyze and interpret that provision of the amendment. (3) If the investigation as to the two prior subjects establishes that the standard fixed as of January 1, 1866, is void, what if any effect does that conclusion have upon the literacy standard otherwise established by the amendment? which involves determining whether that standard, if legal, may survive the recognition of the fact that the other or 1866 standard has not and never had any legal existence. Let us consider these subjects under separate headings.
1. The operation and effect of the Fifteenth Amendment. This is its text:
"Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
(a) Beyond doubt the Amendment does not take away from the state governments in a general sense the power over suffrage which has belonged to those governments from the beginning and without the possession of which power the whole fabric upon which the division of state and national authority under the Constitution and the organization of both governments rest would be without support and both the authority of the nation and the State would fall to the ground. In fact, the very command of the Amendment recognizes the possession of the general power by the State, since the Amendment seeks to regulate its exercise as to the particular subject with which it deals.
(b) But it is equally beyond the possibility of question that the Amendment in express terms restricts the power of the United States or the States to abridge or deny the right of a citizen of the United States to vote on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude. The restriction is coincident with the power and prevents its exertion in disregard of the command of the Amendment. But while this is true, it is true also that the Amendment does not change, modify or deprive the States of their full power as to suffrage except of course as to the subject with which the Amendment deals and to the extent that obedience to its command is necessary. Thus the authority over suffrage which the States possess and the limitation which the Amendment imposes are coordinate and one may not destroy the other without bringing about the destruction of both.
(c) While in the true sense, therefore, the Amendment
With these principles before us how can there be room for any serious dispute concerning the repugnancy of the standard based upon January 1, 1866 (a date which preceded the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment), if the suffrage provision fixing that standard is susceptible of the significance which the Government attributes to it? Indeed, there seems no escape from the conclusion that to hold that there was even possibility for dispute on the subject would be but to declare that the Fifteenth Amendment not only had not the self-executing power which it has been recognized to have from the beginning, but that its provisions were wholly inoperative because susceptible of being rendered inapplicable by mere forms of expression embodying no exercise of judgment and resting upon no discernible reason other than the purpose to disregard the prohibitions of the Amendment by creating a standard of
2. The standard of January 1, 1866, fixed in the suffrage amendment and its significance.
The inquiry of course here is, Does the amendment as to the particular standard which this heading embraces involve the mere refusal to comply with the commands of the Fifteenth Amendment as previously stated? This leads us for the purpose of the analysis to recur to the text of the suffrage amendment. Its opening sentence fixes the literacy standard which is all-inclusive since it is general in its expression and contains no word of discrimination on account of race or color or any other reason. This however is immediately followed by the provisions creating the standard based upon the condition existing on January 1, 1866, and carving out those coming under that standard from the inclusion in the literacy test which would have controlled them but for the exclusion thus expressly provided for. The provision is this:
"But no person who was, on January 1, 1866, or at 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."
We have difficulty in finding words to more clearly demonstrate the conviction we entertain that this standard has the characteristics which the Government attributes to it than does the mere statement of the text. It is true it contains no express words of an exclusion from the standard which it establishes of any person on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude prohibited by the Fifteenth Amendment, but the standard itself inherently brings that result into existence since it is based
While these considerations establish that the standard fixed on the basis of the 1866 test is void, they do not enable us to reply even to the first question asked by the court below, since to do so we must consider the literacy standard established by the suffrage amendment and the possibility of its surviving the determination of the fact that the 1866 standard never took life since it was void from the beginning because of the operation upon it of the prohibitions of the Fifteenth Amendment. And this brings us to the last heading:
3. The determination of the validity of the literacy test and the possibility of its surviving the disappearance of the 1866
No time need be spent on the question of the validity of the literacy test considered alone since as we have seen its establishment was but the exercise by the State of a lawful power vested in it not subject to our supervision, and indeed, its validity is admitted. Whether this test is so connected with the other one relating to the situation on January 1, 1866, that the invalidity of the latter requires the rejection of the former is really a question of state law, but in the absence of any decision on the subject by the Supreme Court of the State, we must determine it for ourselves. We are of opinion that neither forms of classification nor methods of enumeration should be made the basis of striking down a provision which was independently legal and therefore was lawfully enacted because of the removal of an illegal provision with which the legal provision or provisions may have been associated. We state what we hold to be the rule thus strongly because we are of opinion that on a subject like the one under consideration involving the establishment of a right whose exercise lies at the very basis of government a much more exacting standard is required than would ordinarily obtain where the influence of the declared unconstitutionality of one provision of a statute upon another and constitutional provision is required to be fixed. Of course, rigorous as is this rule and imperative as is the duty not to violate it, it does not mean that it applies in a case where it expressly appears that a contrary conclusion must be reached if the plain letter and necessary intendment of the provision under consideration so compels, or where such a result is rendered necessary because to follow the contrary course would give rise to such an extreme and anomalous situation as would cause it to be impossible to conclude that it could have been upon any hypothesis whatever within the mind of the law-making power.
The reasons previously stated dispose of the case and make it plain that it is our duty to answer the first question, No, and the second, Yes; but before we direct the entry of an order to that effect we come briefly to dispose of an issue the consideration of which we have hitherto postponed from a desire not to break the continuity of discussion as to the general and important subject before us.
In various forms of statement not challenging the instructions given by the trial court concretely considered concerning the liability of the election officers for their official conduct, it is insisted that as in connection with the instructions the jury was charged that the suffrage amendment was unconstitutional because of its repugnancy to the Fifteenth Amendment, therefore taken as a whole the charge was erroneous. But we are of opinion that this contention is without merit, especially in view
We answer the first question, No, and the second question, Yes.
And it will be so certified.
MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS took no part in the consideration and decision of this case.