2 minute read

Katzenbach v. Morgan

A Plain And Consistent Act

By a majority of 7-2, the Court reversed the lower court's ruling. Writing for the majority, Justice Brennan wrote that section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act was a proper exercise of congressional power granted by the Fourteenth Amendment. Therefore, the New York English literacy requirement could not be enforced to the extent that it was inconsistent with section 4(e). Brennan wrote that any judicial interpretation of Section 5 that would determine that a state law overrode an act of Congress "would depreciate both congressional resourcefulness and congressional responsibility for implementing the Fourteenth Amendment." Brennan observed that the key question was not if the New York English literacy requirement denying the right to vote to certain persons violated the Equal Protection Clause. Rather, it was to determine if 4(e) was "appropriate legislation to enforce the Equal Protection Clause."

Brennan noted that section 5 was broad in scope. He applied three tests to decide the case: (1) if the law was enacted to enforce the Equal Protection Clause; (2) if the law was "plainly adapted to that end"; and, (3) if the law was consistent with "the letter and spirit of the constitution."

Regarding the first test, Justice Brennan stated, "There can be no doubt that section 4(e) may be regarded as an enactment to enforce the Equal Protection Clause" because Congress "explicitly declared" such. Brennan observed that "section 4(e) may be viewed as a measure to secure for the Puerto Rican community residing in New York nondiscriminatory treatment by government."

Concerning the second test, Brennan found that section 4(e) "may be readily seen as plainly adapted" to further the objectives of the Equal Protection Clause. It prohibited "New York from denying the right to vote to large segments of its Puerto Rican community," thus enhancing the Puerto Rican community's political power. Such power "will be helpful in gaining nondiscriminatory treatment in public services for the entire Puerto Rican community." Section 4(e) therefore allowed the Puerto Rican minority to enjoy greater equality of civil rights and equal protection under the laws.

Regarding the third test concerning consistency "with the letter and spirit of the constitution," Brennan noted that Morgan alleged the act violated congressional powers under the Fifth Amendment. Morgan contended the standard was not applied equally, but only to those educated in schools located within United States jurisdiction. Those educated outside the territorial limits of the United States were, in essence, excluded. Congress, according to Morgan, had themselves violated the Constitution by not extending the rights recognized in section 4(e) to all individuals educated in foreign schools.

Joined in dissent by Justice Stewart, Justice Harlan wrote that a key issue was whether New York could demonstrate a legitimate state interest in requiring English literacy to vote. Harlan believed the state's arguments before the Court succeeded in passing that test. Besides, the federal government traditionally used the English literacy requirement in some other matters, such as naturalization of new citizens. In addition, New York was very experienced with governing non-English speaking residents. Of most concern to Harlan was that Congress inappropriately made an essentially judicial determination on the constitutionality of the New York law. Congress should have acted only after a court ruling had been made on the matter. The separation of powers between Congress and the judiciary, Harlan warned, were dangerously blurred by this ruling.

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