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Katzenbach v. Morgan

Voting Rights Act Of 1965

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 represented the first time in U.S. history that Congress became involved in voting regulations. Key provisions of the act included prohibitions against states, or any of their political subdivisions, from denying any U.S. citizen the right to vote based on race or color through application of specific qualifications or standards. Seven southern states could not adopt new voting procedures, including creation of new voting districts, without first providing the state's attorney generals offices an opportunity to review them and raise objections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 also authorized the U.S. attorney general to send federal examiners to the seven states to register African Americans voters in certain situations.

Importantly, the act suspended literacy tests in states where less than half of the voting-age population was registered or had voted in the 1964 election. This section of the law had immediate impact. By the end of 1965, a quarter of a million new African American voters were registered, one third by the federal examiners. The Southern states quickly challenged the new law in the courts. The states claimed the federal government was exceeding its authority over voting issues. The Supreme Court upheld the act in South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966).

In 1965, New York law and state constitution contained an English literacy requirement for residents voting in the state. This requirement affected several hundred thousand New York City residents from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico who only spoke Spanish. In reaction, another section, 4(e), of the 1965 act established that persons successfully completing the sixth grade in an accredited school in Puerto Rico where instruction was in Spanish should be allowed to vote despite their inability to read or write English. Several registered New York City voters, including a person named Morgan who actively registered voters in New York City, were upset with the new act. They argued the section illegally prohibited New York's enforcement of the English literacy requirement.

Morgan filed a lawsuit in the District Court for the District of Columbia seeking a declaration that section 4(e) was constitutionally invalid. He also requested an injunction prohibiting Katzenbach, Attorney General of the United States, and the New York City Board of Elections from implementing section 4(e). A three-judge district court reviewed the case and found in favor of Morgan. The court issued an order blocking 4(e)'s implementation. The court held by a 2-1 vote that Congress had exceeded its constitutional powers under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment when enacting the section. In reaction, Katzenbach appealed directly to the Supreme Court.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Katzenbach v. Morgan - Significance, Voting Rights Act Of 1965, A Plain And Consistent Act, Impact, Further Readings