Giles v. Harris

Giles v. Harris, 189 U.S. 475 (1903), was a turn-of-the-century United States Supreme Court case in which the Court upheld a state constitution's requirements for voter registration and qualifications. Although the plaintiff accused the state of discriminating in practice against black citizens, the Court found that the requirements applied to all citizens and refused to undertake overseeing the state's process.

Booker T. Washington, secretly arranged for funding and representation for Jackson W. Giles in this lawsuit and the ensuing Giles v. Teasley (1904), although he was publicly known for an accommodationist stand for black advancement. He worked extensively behind the scenes to direct and raise funds for other lawsuits and segregation challenges as well.


The plaintiff, Jackson W. Giles, sued on behalf of more than five thousand black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama and himself in seeking to have the federal court require the state to register them to vote. The suit was brought in response to a number of provisions in the Alabama state constitution which combined to prevent blacks from being able to register. Giles was literate and had voted in Montgomery from 1871 to 1901.

One of the new provisions held that any person registered before January 1, 1903 (as most whites were) would thereafter be registered for life; but any person not registered at that time (as most blacks were not) would have to overcome a number of hurdles to be allowed to register. Among those hurdles was a test of the potential registrant's understanding of the duties and obligations of citizenship. This test was administered by white election officials, who conducted it in a subjective manner that resulted in most whites' being approved to register and most blacks being rejected from registering.

The U.S. District court dismissed the case on the grounds that the suit was not seeking enough in damages to bring it within the jurisdiction of the federal courts. At the time, a statute was in place requiring that cases brought under federal question jurisdiction satisfy an amount-in-controversy requirement of $2000. Giles had not specified any amount of monetary damages. The plaintiff appealed the dismissal to the U.S. Supreme Court.


The Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether the Federal courts had the authority to hear a case brought against government officials based on the assertion that those officials were part of a statewide conspiracy to deprive blacks of the right to vote.


The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, decided to uphold the dismissal of the case, for two reasons:

  • First, the Court noted that the plaintiffs were asserting that the entire registration system was unconstitutional, but the only relief they sought was to be registered. The Court suggested that it would solve nothing for the names of the plaintiffs to be added to the voter rolls while the entire voting process remained illegal.
  • Second, the Court noted that under the doctrine set forth in Hans v. Louisiana, the Eleventh Amendment prohibited the plaintiff from suing the state directly in a United States federal court. Since the federal court has no power to issue an order to the state, the only way that the plaintiff's ability to vote could be enforced would be for the court to monitor the entire election process, which would be difficult in light of the overwhelming desire of the white population to prevent blacks from voting.


Justice John Marshall Harlan and Justice David Josiah Brewer each dissented from the Court's opinion. Harlan contended that the court could have resolved the issue based on the amount-in-controversy requirement, and did not need to address the power of the Federal courts to hear the merits of this suit. Harlan and Brewer both asserted that, if the question was solely one of the power of Federal courts to hear this case, then the Court should find that such power indeed exists.


In Giles v. Teasley, Jackson Giles sought to meet some of the Court's grounds for its rulings, but his challenge was rejected. It was not until many years later that the Court would overturn Giles v. Harris in a series of cases which established that the right to vote was protected by the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and that federal courts have broad power to address deprivations of constitutional rights of citizens within states. After Federal civil rights legislation was passed in the mid-1960s, it did in fact take several more years of Federal court oversight and Federal intervention and monitoring to ensure that African Americans were allowed to register to vote in the South. When Giles v. Harris was brought to the Supreme Court, some members of the Court (and the Executive Branch) did not conceive of exercising such powers years after Reconstruction had ended.


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