Afroyim v. Rusk
The ruling overturned the 1958 decision in Perez v. Brownell, which found that Congress had the authority to provide for involuntary expatriation of a citizen who voted in a foreign election. The Court concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment provides that once citizenship is granted, it cannot be "shifted, canceled, or diluted at the will of the Federal Government." The Court also said that the language of the Constitution and the legislative history of earlier citizenship laws strongly indicated that Congress never had the power to revoke citizenship.
Afroyim, born in Poland, was naturalized as an American citizen in 1926. He moved to Israel in 1950 and voted in an Israeli election in 1951, but he never renounced his American citizenship. In 1960, the U.S. State Department refused to renew his passport, ruling that he had lost his citizenship by voting in a foreign election. He sued the secretary of state, seeking a declaratory judgment that the law was unconstitutional. Applying Perez v. Brownell, the district court and court of appeals both rejected his argument, and he asked the Supreme Court for review.
The Fourteenth Amendment provides that, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens of the United States . . . " The Court said, "The Amendment can most reasonably be read as defining a citizenship which a citizen keeps unless he voluntarily relinquishes it." Although the Fourteenth Amendment was primarily intended to protect the citizenship rights given to blacks in the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Court concluded that it clearly applied to all citizens, regardless of how their citizenship was obtained. As the opinion said, "Though the framers of the Amendment were not particularly concerned with the problem of expatriation, it seems undeniable from the language they used that they wanted to put citizenship beyond the power of any governmental unit to destroy."
The Court noted that the Perez case "ha[d] been a source of controversy and confusion," and that the Court had "consistently invalidated" other statutes allowing involuntary removal of citizenship. It found that the dissent in Perez correctly concluded that the government cannot take away citizenship for voting in a foreign election. "To uphold Congress' power to take away a man's citizenship because he voted in a foreign election in violation of sec. 401(e) would be equivalent to holding that Congress has the power to `abridge,' `affect,' `restrict the effect of,' and `take away' citizenship" in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court said.
The Court also noted that even without the Fourteenth Amendment the Constitution gives Congress no express powers to take away citizenship. It commented that "[i]n our country the people are sovereign" and concluded that congressional power over issues of citizenship is correspondingly limited. Looking at legislative history of early congressional wrangles with expatriation issues, the Court concluded that most early efforts to allow cancellation of citizenship were stopped because the members of Congress felt that they had no authority to take away citizenship.
The case was decided by a 5-4 vote, and a strong dissent written by Justice Harlan argued that the Perez case should have been upheld. Harlan argued that the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment simply declared the existing law, and made it clear that rights of the former slaves could not be stripped from them. The dissent concluded that "nothing in the history, purposes, or language of the clause suggests that it forbids Congress in all circumstances to withdraw the citizenship of an unwilling citizen."