Guinn v. United States
, 238 U.S. 347
(1915), was an important United States Supreme Court
decision that dealt with provisions of state constitutions that set qualifications for voters. It found grandfather clause
exemptions to literacy tests
to be unconstitutional. The Oklahoma Constitution, while appearing to treat all voters equally, allowed an exemption to the literacy requirement for those voters whose grandfathers had either been eligible to vote prior to January 1, 1866 or were then a resident of "some foreign nation", or were soldiers. It was an exemption that favored white voters while it disfranchised black voters, most of whose grandfathers had been slaves and therefore unable to vote before 1866.
"In 1915, in the case of Guinn v. United States, the Supreme Court declared the grandfather clauses in the Maryland and Oklahoma constitutions to be repugnant to the Fifteenth Amendment and therefore null and void." (Franklin, Moss p.353) This also affected similar provisions in the constitutions of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia.
was admitted to the Union in 1907, it had adopted a constitution which allowed men of all races to vote, in compliance with the Fifteenth Amendment
to the United States Constitution
. However, legislators soon passed an amendment to the Constitution that required voters to satisfy a literacy test. A potential voter could be exempted from the literacy requirement if he could prove either that his grandfathers had been voters or had been citizens of some foreign nation, or had served as soldiers before 1866. As a result, illiterate whites were able to vote — but not illiterate blacks, whose grandfathers had almost all been slaves and therefore barred from voting before 1866. Most states that had permitted free people of color to vote in early decades of the 19th century had rescinded that right before 1840. Thus, even African Americans who might have descended from free families could not get an exemption to literacy tests, which in practice were highly subjective, with registrars who discriminated against black voters. Oklahoma's amendment followed those of numerous Southern states that had similar grandfather clauses
in their constitutions.
The Oklahoma amendment provided:
- "No person shall be registered as an elector of this state or be allowed to vote in any election held herein, unless he be able to read and write any section of the Constitution of the state of Oklahoma; but no person who was, on January 1, 1866, or any time prior thereto, entitled to vote under any form of government, or who at that time resided in some foreign nation, and no lineal descendant of such person, shall be denied the right to register and vote because of his inability to so read and write sections of such Constitution. Precinct election inspectors having in charge the registration of electors shall enforce the provisions of this section at the time of registration, provided registration be required. Should registration be dispensed with, the provisions of this section shall be enforced by the precinct election officers when electors apply for ballots to vote."
The amendment came into force before the election of November 8, 1910 was held. During that election, certain election officers refused to allow black citizens to vote; those officers were indicted and convicted of fraudulently disfranchishing black voters, in violation of the 15th Amendment and in violation of Oklahoma State Law.
Argued before the Court on October 17
. The case represented the second appearance before the Court of Solicitor General John W. Davis
and the first case in which the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
) filed a brief.
In its decision handed down on June 21
, the Court ruled that because the provision, recurring to the conditions existing before the 15th Amendment was adopted and the continuance of which the 15th Amendment prohibited, proposed by in substance and effect lifting those conditions over to a period of time after the Amendment, to make them the basis of the right to suffrage conferred in direct and positive disregard of the 15th Amendment.
The decision had little short-term effect in Oklahoma. The state legislature immediately passed a statute that provided that "all persons, except those who voted in 1914, who were qualified to vote in 1916 but who failed to register between April 30 and May 11, 1916, with some exceptions for sick and absent persons who were given an additional brief period to register, would be perpetually disenfranchised."
Because of the Supreme Court decision in 1915, similar grandfather clause provisions in the constitutions of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia were struck down. In most of those states, legislators also quickly devised other statutory approaches to limit black voter registration and voting.
Twenty-three years later, the Supreme Court struck down the statute which Oklahoma had passed to replace the grandfather clause in Lane v. Wilson, . The Court concluded that "the means chosen as substitutes for the invalidated 'grandfather clause' were themselves invalid under the Fifteenth Amendment. They operated unfairly against the very class on whose behalf the protection of the Constitution was here successfully invoked."