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Giles v. Harris
(1903) 189 U.S. 475

 

Facts

A colored man brought a petition seeking an equitable remedy against the board of registrars of Montgomery, Alabama, for its allegedly arbitrary refusal to enroll him as a voter. The petition alleged that, under section 187 of the Alabama constitution, the Board enrolls all white persons using an easy qualification test and refuses to enroll all black persons on the basis of administrating a difficult test. This practice results, the petition states, in the disenfranchisement of all black persons. The Board determines which persons are "of good character and who understand the duties and obligations of citizenship" and which are not.

Giles filed his petition in Federal court, attempting to establish the court's jurisdiction to hear the case by citing a federal statute which provides that every person who, under color of state law, subjects any citizen of the United States to the deprivation of any rights secured by the Federal Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, or a suit in equity, "or other proper proceedings for redress."

The Federal court had ruled that it had no jurisdiction because the bill did not allege threatened damage to an amount exceeding two thousand dollars, a statutory requirement for federal court jurisdiction at that time.

Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the majority opinion:

"We have recognized that the deprivation of a man's political and social rights properly may be alleged to involve damage to an amount exceeding two thousand dollars. The absence of the allegation was not objected to, in the court below, and as it could have been remedied by amendment, we think it unavailing.

Further, we think the subject matter of the petition falls within the meaning of the federal Statute.

We proceed then to consider the substance of the petition. It seems to us impossible to grant the equitable relief which is asked. First, the language of the statute does not extend the remedy of equitable relief, unless such remedy is the proper remedy in the case, and it is not, because the traditional limits of proceedings in equity have not embraced a remedy for political wrongs.

But we cannot forget that we are dealing with a new and extraordinary situation, and we are unwilling to stop short of the final considerations which seems to us to dispose of the case."

Note: So far, it sounds good. The majority has skipped by the technical objection to its jurisdiction to hear the case, and it has refused to dismiss the case out of hand, because a suit in equity "traditionally" has not been used in the past to right a political wrong. So it is going to reach the merits of the colored man's complaint—that the State of Alabama, through its constitution and laws, has set up a scheme by which most, if not all, its African-American citizens are refused the right to vote.

 

"The difficulties which we cannot overcome are two, and the first is this: The plaintiff alleges that the registration scheme is a fraud upon the Constitution of the United States, and asks us to declare it (Alabama law) void. But of course he could not maintain a bill for a mere declaration in the air. He does not try to do so, but asks to be registered as a party qualified under the void instrument."

Note: Holmes is not stupid, but what does he mean, "a mere declaration in the air?" Certainly a declaration that a State law is repugnant to the U.S. Constitution is hardly a mere declaration in the air: it is the function of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Marshall declared, to declare exactly that, when the circumstances warrant. And what does he mean when he says the plaintiff "asks to be registered as a party qualified under the void instrument?"

 

"How can we make the court a party to the unlawful scheme by accepting it and adding another voter to its fraudulent lists?"

Note: Apparently the problem is that the colored man's petition does not claim the Alabama law is unconstitutional, but that it is administered unfairly by the Board of Registrars.

 

"The other difficulty is of a different sort, and strikingly reinforces the argument that equity cannot undertake now to enforce political rights. In determining whether a court of equity can take jurisdiction one of the first questions is what it can do to enforce any order that it may make (e.g., order the Board to enroll the plaintiff as a voter.)."

"The bill imports that the great mass of the white population intends to keep the blacks from voting. To meet such an intent something more than ordering the plaintiff's name to be inscribed upon the lists will be needed. If the conspiracy (between the State and the Board) and the intent exist, a name on a piece of paper will not defeat them. Unless we are prepared to supervise the voting in that State by officers of the court, it seems to us that all that the plaintiff could get from equity would be an empty form. Apart from damages to the individual, relief from a political wrong. . . must be given by the people of the State or by the political department of the Government of the United States."

The dismissal of the petition by the Federal Court is hereby affirmed.

Justice Brewer, with Brown and Harlan joining, dissents:

"Accepting the statement of facts, it appears that the plaintiff was entitled to a place on the permanent registry of voters and was denied it by the Board. He was deprived of that right by the action of the defendants. Has the Federal Court jurisdiction to redress such wrong? I cannot agree to the proposition that the plaintiff's petition is not strictly a legal one and entitling a party to a judicial hearing and decision. The plaintiff alleges that he is a citizen of Alabama entitled to vote; that registration was wrongly denied him by defendants.  Under existing case law these allegations are enough to trigger jurisdiction.

Joe Ryan