Oregon v. Mitchell
Decided on Dec. 21, 1970; 400 US 112


Voting Rights Act is challenged in a balancing act between federal authority and state powers

I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Civil Rights (Voting Rights), 15th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Are certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970 constitutional?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

Attorneys general for the states of Oregon, Texas, Arizona, and Idaho (Plaintiffs) challenged three provisions of the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970 as unconstitutional, and refused to comply with the conditions. The provisions did three things. First, the Act lowered the minimum age of voters in both state and federal elections from 21 to 18.  Second, based upon a finding by Congress that literacy tests discriminated against voters on account of color, the Act barred the use of such tests in all elections, state and national, for a five-year period. Third, the Act forbid states from disqualifying voters in presidential and vice-presidential elections because they did not meet state residency requirements. The Attorneys general argued that the provisions took away the states' power to control their own elections, asserting that the Constitution specifically reserved this power to the states. 

In cases Nos. 43 and 44, Oregon and Texas, respectively, sued the United States Attorney General (Defendant) seeking an injunction against the enforcement of Title III (lowered minimum age of voters section) of the Act.  In case No. 46, the United States sought to ban Arizona from enforcing its laws that would conflict with the Act, and directing the officials of Arizona to comply with the provisions of Title II (specifically the literacy test ban). In No. 47, the United States invoked "original jurisdiction" seeking to ban Idaho from enforcing its laws to the extent that they conflict with Title II (specifically the abolition of residency requirements in presidential and vice-presidential elections), and Title III of the Act.

All four suits were consolidated and went directly to the US Supreme Court. 
B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Defendant for No. 43 and No. 44; Plaintiff for No. 46 and No. 47)
Opposing Side
(Plaintiff for No. 43 and No. 44; Defendant for No. 46 and No. 47)
Solicitor General Griswold argued the cause for defendant in No. 43 and No. 44 and for the United States (plaintiff) in No. 46 and 47. With him on the briefs were Attorney General Mitchell, pro se, Assistant Attorney General Leonard, Peter L. Strauss, and Samuel Harrington.
Lee Johnson, Attorney General of Oregon argued the cause for plaintiff in No. 43. With him on the briefs were Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain, Deputy Attorney General, Jacob B. Tanzer, Solicitor General, and Al J. Laue and Thomas H. Denney, Assistant Attorneys General.

Charles Alan Wright argued the cause for plaintiff in No. 44. With him on the brief were Crawford C. Martin, Attorney General of Texas, Nola White, First Assistant Attorney General, Alfred Walker, Executive Assistant Attorney General, and J. C. Davis, W.O. Shultz II, and John Reeves, Assistant Attorneys General.

Gary K. Nelson, Attorney General of Arizona, and John M. McGowan II, Special Assistant General argued the cause and filed a brief for defendant in No. 46.

Robert M. Robson, Attorney General of Idaho argued the cause for defendant in No. 47. With him on the brief was Richard H., Greener, Assistant Attorney General.

C. The Arguments:

ACLU Side
(Defendant for No. 43 and No. 44; Plaintiff for No. 46 and No. 47)
Opposing Side
(Plaintiff for No. 43 and No. 44; Defendant for No. 46 and No. 47)
Unavailable Unavailable  
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Defendant for No. 43 and No. 44; Plaintiff for No. 46 and No. 47)
Opposing Side
(Plaintiff for No. 43 and No. 44; Defendant for No. 46 and No. 47)
Melvin L. Wulf filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union, as amicus curiae, in support of defendant in No. 43, plaintiff in No. 46 and No. 47.

John R. Cosgrove filed a brief for Citizens for Lowering the Voting Age et al. as amicus curiae, in support of defendant in No. 43 and plaintiff in No. 46 and No. 47.

William A. Dobrovir, Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., David Rubin, Stephen I. Schlossberg, John A. Fillion, Nathaniel R. Jones, Clarence Mitchell, and J. Francis Pohlhaus filed a brief for the Youth Franchise Coalition et al. as amicus curiae, in support of defendant in No. 43 and plaintiff in No. 46.

Joseph A. Califano, Jr. and Clifford L. Alexander filed a brief for the Democratic National Committee as amicus curiae, in support of defendant in No. 43.

Jones, Mitchell, and Pohlhaus filed a brief for the Department of Armed Services and Veterans Affairs for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as amicus curiae, in support of defendant in No. 43.
A.F. Summer, Attorney General, Delos Burks, First Assistant Attorney General, William A. Allain, Assistant Attorney General, and Charles B. Henley filed a brief for the State of Mississippi as amicus curiae, in support of plaintiff in No. 43 and No. 44, and defendant in No. 46 and No. 47.

Theodore L. Sendak, Attorney General, Richard C. Johnson, Chief Deputy Attorney General, and William F. Thompson filed a brief for the State of Indiana as amicus curiae, in support of plaintiff in No. 44. They were joined by the Attorneys General for their respective states, as follows: Joe Purcell of Arkansas, Robert M. Robson of Idaho, Jack P. F. Germillion of Louisiana, Clarence A. H. Meyer of Nebraska, Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, Robert Morgan of North Carolina, Helgi Johanneson of North Dakota, Paul W. Brown of Ohio, Gordon Mydland of South Dakota, Vernon B. Romney of Utah, Slade Gorton of Washington, Chauncey H. Browning, Jr. of West Virginia, and James E. Barrett of Wyoming.

Andrew P. Miller, Attorney General, and Anthony F. Troy and Walter A. McFarlane, Assistant Attorneys General filed a brief for the Common Wealth of Virginia as amicus curiae, in support of defendant in No. 47.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"To invalidate part of the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970... does not mean that the entire Act must fall or that the constitutional part of the 18-year-old vote provision cannot be given effect...
 
In this case, it is the judgment of the Court that Title III, lowering the voting age to 18, is invalid as applied to voters in state and local elections. It is also the judgment of the Court that Title III is valid with respect to national elections. We would fail to follow the  express will of Congress in interpreting its own statute if we refused to sever these two distinct aspects of Title III.  Moreover, legislative enactments are to be enforced to the extent that they are not inconsistent with the Constitution, particularly where the valid portion of the statute does not depend upon the invalid part. Here, of course, the enforcement of the 18-year-old vote in national elections is in no way dependent upon its enforcement in state and local elections.

In enacting the literacy test ban of Title II Congress had before it a long history of the discriminatory use of literacy tests to disfranchise voters on account of their race. Faced with this and other evidence that literacy tests reduce voter participation in a discriminatory manner not only in the South but throughout the Nation, Congress was supported by substantial evidence in concluding that a nationwide ban on literacy tests was appropriate to enforce the Civil War amendments.

In Title II of the Voting Rights Act Amendments Congress also provided that 'no voter could be denied his right to cast a ballot because he had not lived in the jurisdiction long enough to meet its residency requirements.' ...In enacting these regulations Congress was attempting to insure a fully effective voice to all citizens in national elections...

Acting under its broad authority to create and maintain a national government, Congress unquestionably has power under the Constitution to regulate federal elections..."

Held: The 18-year-old vote provisions of the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970 are constitutional and enforceable insofar as they pertain to federal elections and unconstitutional and unenforceable insofar as they pertain to state and local elections. The literacy-test provisions of the Act are upheld. The residency and absentee balloting provisions of the Act are upheld.
Justice Vote: 5 Pro vs. 4 Con
  • Black, H. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined Brennan's concurrence)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined Brennan's concurrence)
  • Harlan, J. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined Stewart's dissent)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Joined Stewart's dissent)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU filed as amicus in support of defendant in No. 43 and No. 44 and in support of plaintiff in No. 46 and No. 47, which in each case was the United States; the US Supreme Court ruled mostly in favor of the United States in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.