Katzenbach v. Morgan: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Congressional Powers and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Exterior of United States Supreme Court building.

Richard Sharrocks / Getty Images

In Katzenbach v. Morgan (1966), the United States Supreme Court ruled that Congress had not exceeded its authority when crafting Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which extended voting rights to a group of voters who had been turned away at the polls because they could not pass literacy tests. The case hinged on the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Enforcement Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Fast Facts: Katzenbach v. Morgan

  • Case Argued: April 18, 1966
  • Decision Issued: June 13, 1966
  • Petitioner: United States Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, New York Board of Elections, et al
  • Respondent: John P. Morgan and Christine Morgan, representing a group of New York voters interested in maintaining literacy tests
  • Key Questions: Did Congress overstep the authority provided to it under Enforcement Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when it included Section 4(e) in the Voting Rights Act of 1965? Did this legislative act violate the Tenth Amendment?
  • Majority: Justices Warren, Black, Douglas, Clark, Brennan, White, and Fortas
  • Dissenting: Justices Harland and Stewart
  • Ruling: Congress properly exercised its authority when legislators enacted Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was aimed at extending Equal Protection to a disenfranchised group of voters.

Facts of the Case

By the 1960s, New York, like many other states, had begun requiring that residents pass literacy tests before being allowed to vote. New York had a sizable population of Puerto Rican residents and these literacy tests prevented a large portion of them from exercising their right to vote. In 1965, the United States Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in an effort to end discriminatory practices that barred minority groups from voting. Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was targeted at the disenfranchisement occurring in New York. It read:

“No person who has successfully completed the sixth primary grade in a public school in, or a private school accredited by, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in which the language of instruction was other than English shall be denied the right to vote in any election because of his inability to read or write English.”

A group of New York voters who wanted to enforce New York's literacy test requirement sued United States Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, whose job it was to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A three-judge district court heard the case. The court decided that Congress overstepped in enacting Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act. The district court granted declaratory and injunctive relief from the provision. U.S. Attorney General Katzenbach appealed the finding directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Constitutional Issues

The Tenth Amendment, grants states, "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States." These powers traditionally included conducting local elections. In this case, the Court had to determine whether Congress’ decision to legislate Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 violated the Tenth Amendment. Did Congress infringe on powers granted to the states?

Arguments

Attorneys representing New York voters argued that individual states have the ability to create and enforce their own voting regulations, as long as those regulations do not violate fundamental rights. Literacy tests were not intended to disenfranchise voters whose first language was not English. Instead, state officials intended to use the tests to encourage English literacy amongst all voters. Congress could not use its legislative powers to override New York State policies.

Attorneys representing the interests of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, argued that Congress had used Section 4(e) as a means of removing a barrier to voting for a minority group. Under the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress has the power to make laws that are aimed at protecting fundamental rights like voting. Congress had acted within its authority when it crafted the section of the VRA in question.

Majority Opinion

Justice William J. Brennan delivered the 7-2 decision which upheld Section 4(e) of the VRA. Congress acted within its powers under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, also known as the Enforcement Clause. Section 5 gives Congress “power to enforce, by appropriate legislation," the rest of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Brennan determined that Section 5 was a “positive grant” of legislative power. It enabled Congress to exercise its own discretion in determining what type of legislation is necessary to achieve Fourteenth Amendment protections. 

In order to determine whether Congress acted within the confines of the Enforcement Clause, Justice Brennan relied on the “appropriateness standard," a test the Supreme Court had developed in McCulloch v. Maryland. Under the “appropriateness standard” Congress could enact legislation in order to enforce the Equal Protection Clause if the legislation was:

  • In pursuit of a legitimate means of ensuring equal protection
  • Plainly adapted
  • Does not violate the spirit of the U.S. Constitution

Justice Brennan found that Section 4(e) was adopted in order to ensure an end to discriminatory treatment against a number of Puerto Rican residents. Congress, under the Fourteenth Amendment, had an adequate basis for enacting the legislation and the legislation did not conflict with any other constitutional freedoms.

Section 4(e) only ensured voting rights for Puerto Ricans who attended an accredited public or private school up to sixth grade. Justice Brennan noted that Congress could not be found in violation of the third prong of the appropriateness test, simply because its chosen legislation had not extended relief to all Puerto Ricans who could not pass English literacy tests.

Justice Brennan wrote:

“A reform measure such as § 4(e) is not invalid because Congress might have gone further than it did, and did not eliminate all the evil at the same time.”

Dissenting Opinion

Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented, joined by Justice Potter Stewart. Justice Harlan argued that the Court’s finding had disregarded the importance of the separation of powers. The legislative branch wields the power to make laws while the judiciary exercises judicial review over those laws to determine whether or not they are in line with fundamental rights laid out in the constitution. The Supreme Court’s ruling, Justice Harlan argued, had allowed Congress to act as a member of the judiciary. Congress created Section 4(e) in order to remedy what it viewed as an Equal Protection Clause violation. The Supreme Court had not and did not find New York’s literacy test to be a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, Justice Harlan wrote.

Impact

Katzenbach v. Morgan reaffirmed Congress’ power to enforce and extend equal protection guarantees. The case has served as a precedent in limited circumstances where Congress has taken action to remedy a state’s denial of equal protection. Katzenbach v. Morgan was influential in the passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act. Congress was able to use its enforcement powers to take stronger actions against racial discrimination, including outlawing private housing discrimination.

Sources

  • Katzenbach v. Morgan, 384 U.S. 641 (1966).
  • “Katzenbach v. Morgan - Impact.” Jrank Law Library, https://law.jrank.org/pages/24907/Katzenbach-v-Morgan-Impact.html.
  • “Section 4 Of The Voting Rights Act.” The United States Department of Justice, 21 Dec. 2017, https://www.justice.gov/crt/section-4-voting-rights-act.