Giles v. Teasley/Opinion of the Court

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Giles v. Teasley
Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

193 U.S. 146

Giles  v.  Teasley

 Argued: January 5, 1904. --- Decided: February 23, 1904

The right to review in this court the judgment of a state court is regulated by § 709 of the Revised Statutes (U.S.C.omp. Stat. 1901, p. 575). The extent and nature of the remedy therein given has been the subject of numerous decisions. The jurisdiction in the cases now under consideration is invoked because of alleged denial of the rights of the plaintiff in error, secured to him by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. When the jurisdiction depends, as in the present cases, upon a right, privilege, or immunity under the Constitution of the United States specially set up and denied in the state court, certain propositions, it is said by Mr. Chief Justice Fuller, speaking for the court in Sayward v. Denny, 158 U.S. 180-183, 39 L. ed. 941, 942, 15 Sup. Ct. Rep. 777, are well settled; among others, 'The right on which the party relies must have been called to the attention of the court in some proper way, and the decision of the court must have been against the right claimed. Hoyt v. Shelden, 1 Black, 518, 17 L. ed. 65; Maxwell v. Newhold, 18 How. 511, 515, 15 L. ed. 506, 508. . . . Or, at all events, it must appear from the record, by clear and necessary intendment, that the Federal question was directly invoked so that the state court could not have given judgment without deciding it.' It is equally well settled that if the decision of a state court rests on an independent ground-one which does not necessarily include a determination of the Federal right claimed-or upon a ground broad enough to sustain it without deciding the Federal question raised, this court has no jurisdiction to review the judgment of the state court. New Orleans v. New Orleans Waterwarks co. 142 U.S. 79, 35 L. ed. 943, 12 Sup. Ct. Rep. 142; Eustis v. Bolles, 150 U.S. 361, 37 L. ed. 1111, 14 Sup. Ct. Rep. 131; Dower v. Richards, 151 U.S. 658-666, 38 L. ed. 305-308, 14 Sup. Ct. Rep. 452; Wade v. Lawder, 165 U.S. 624-623, 41 L. ed. 851, 17 Sup. Ct. Rep. 425.

In every case which comes to this court on writ of error or appeal the question of jurisdiction must be first answered, whether propounded by counsel or not. Defiance Waterworks Co. v. Defiance, decided at this term, 191 U.S. 184, ante, p. 63, 24 Sup. Ct. Rep. 63. In No. 337, in which an action was begun against the registrars for damages, the case was decided upon demurrer to the declaration. The supreme court of Alabama placed its decision affirming the lower court, which sustained the demurrer, upon two grounds, as follows:

'If we accept (without deciding) as correct the insistence laid in appellant's brief that § 186 of article 8 of the Constitution of 1901 is void because repugnant to the 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution of the United States, then the defendants were wholly without authority to register the plaintiff as a voter, and their refusal to do so cannot be made the predicate for a recovery of damages against them.

'On the other hand, if that section is the source of their authority, the jurisdiction is expressly conferred by it upon the defendants as a board of registrars to determine the qualifications of plaintiff as an elector and of his right to be registered as a voter. For their judicial determination that plaintiff did not possess the requisite qualifications of an elector, and their judicial act of refusing to register him, predicated upon that determination, they are not liable in this action. 17 Am. & Eng. Enc. Law, 2d ed. pp. 727, 728, and notes. Affirmed.' 136 Ala. 164, 33 So. 819.

A consideration of the plaintiff's petition shows that it attacked the provisions of the Alabama Constitution regulating the qualifications and registration of the electors of the state as an attempt to disregard the provisions of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, by qualifying the whites to exercise the elective franchise and denying the same rights to the negroes of the state. It is alleged that §§ 180, 181, 182, 184, 185, 186, 187, and 188 of the Alabama Constitution, which took effect on November 28, 1901, and under which the defendants were appointed registrars, and were acting at the time, were enacted by the state of Alabama, through its delegates to the constitutional convention, to deny and abridge the right of the plaintiff and others of his race to vote in the state on account of their color* and previous condition of servitude, without disfranchising a single white man in the state. These sections of the Alabama Constitution were before this court in the case of Giles v. Harris, 189 U.S. 475, 47 L. ed. 909, 23 Sup. Ct. Rep. 639, and the general plan of voting and registration was summarized by Mr. Justice Holmes, delivering the opinion of the court, as follows:

'By § 178 of article 8, to entitle a person to vote he must have resided in the state at least two years, in the county one year, and in the precinct or ward three months, immediately preceding the election, have paid his poll taxes, and have been duly registered as an elector. By § 182, idiots, insane persons, and those convicted of certain crimes are disqualified. Subject to the foregoing, by § 180, before 1903 the following male citizens of the state, who are citizens of the United States, were entitled to register, viz.: First. All who had served honorably in the enumerated wars of the United States, including those on either side in the 'war between the states.' Second. All lawful descendants of persons who served honorably in the enumerated wars or in the War of the Revolution. Third. 'All persons who are of good character and who understand the duties and obligations of citizenship under a republican form of government.' . . . By § 181 after January 1, 1903, only the following persons are entitled to register: First. Those who can read and write any article of the Constitution of the United States in the English language, and who either are physically unable to work or have been regularly engaged in some lawful business for the greater part of the last twelve months, and those who are unable to read and write solely because physically disabled. Second. Owners or husbands of owners of 40 acres of land in the state, upon which they reside, and owners or husbands of owners of real or personal estate in the state, assessed for taxation at $300 or more, if the taxes have been paid, unless under contest. By § 183, only persons qualified as electors can take part in any method of party action. By § 184, persons not registered are diqualified from voting. By § 185, an elector whose vote is challenged shall be required to swear that the matter of the challenge is untrue before his vote shall be received. By § 186, the legislature is to provide for registration after January 1, 1903, the qualifications and oath of the registrars are prescribed, the duties of registrars before that date are laid down, and an appeal is given to the county court and supreme court if registration is denied. There are further executive details in § 187, together with the above-mentioned continuance of the effect of registration before January 1, 1903. By § 188, after the last-mentioned date applicants for registration may be examined under oath as to where they have lived for the last five years, the names by which they have been known, and the names of their employers.'

It is apparent that paragraph 3 of § 180, permitting the registration of electors before 1903, of 'all persons who are of good character and who understand the duties and obligations of citizenship under a republican form of government,' opened a wide door to the exercise of discretionary power by the registrars. It is charged that this section, in connection with § 181, permitting the registration of certain persons after January, 1903, was intended to be so carried into operation and effect that the negroes of Alabama should be excluded from the elective franchise, and to permit the white men to register before January 1, 1903, and thus become electors, compelling the colored men to wait until after January 1, 1903, and then to apply under conditions which were especially framed and would have the effect to exclude the colored man from voting. It is charged that the registrars well knew the scheme and purpose set forth in the complaint to work the disfranchisement of negro voters and to qualify the white voters to exercise the elective franchise, and it is charged that the defendants were appointed by the state under sections of the state Constitution adopted for the purpose of denying the colored man the right to vote and under which the defendants are undertaking to carry out the scheme and were so acting when they denied the right of the plaintiff to register, thus depriving him of the right guaranteed to him by the 1st section of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. A consideration of the allegations of this complaint, to which the demurrer was sustained, makes apparent that the Federal right for which the plaintiff sought protection and the recovery of damages was that secured by the amendment to the Federal Constitution which prohibits a state from denying to the citizen the right of suffrage because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. But in the present case the state court has not sustained the right of the state to thus abridge the constitutional rights of the plaintiff. It has planted its decision upon a ground independent of the alleged state action seeking to nullify the force and effect of the constitutional amendments protecting the right of suffrage. The first ground of sustaining the demurrer is, in effect, that, conceding the allegations of the petition to be true, and the registrars to have been appointed and qualified under a constitution which has for its purpose to prevent negroes from voting and to exclude them from registration for that purpose, no damage has been suffered by the plaintiff, because no refusal to register by a board thus constituted in defiance of the Federal Constitution could have the effect to disqualify a legal voter, otherwise entitled to exercise the elective franchise. In such a decision no right, immunity, or privilege, the creation of Federal authority, has been set up by the plaintiff in error, and denied in such wise as to give this court the right to review the state court decision. This view renders it unnecessary to consider whether, where a proper case was made for the denial of the right of suffrage, it would be a defense for the election officers to say that they were acting in a judicial capacity where the denial of the right was solely because of the race, color, or previous condition of servide of the plaintiff. In the ground first stated we are of opinion that the state court decided the case for reasons independent of the Federal right claimed, and hence its action is not reviewable here.

In the case for a writ of mandamus the same attack was made upon the action of the state of Alabama in adopting and enforcing the provisions of the state constitution, which it was charged were adopted for the purpose of disfranchising the negroes and permitting white men only to exercise the elective franchise. In the mandamus case the decision of the state court was:

'The petition in this case is for a writ of mandamus to compel the board of registrars for Montgomery county to register the petitioner as an elector. It alleges that §§ 180, 181, 183, 184, 185, 186, 187, and 188 of art. 8 of the Constitution of 1901, fixing the qualifications of electors, and prescribing the mode of registration, are unconstitutional because violative of the 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution of the United States. The prayer is in substance that these sections of the Constitution above enumerated be declared null and void and that an alternative writ of mandamus issue to the board of registrars commanding them to register as a qualified elector of the state of Alabama, upon the books provided therefor, the name of petitioner, and to issue to him a certificate of the fact in disregard of said sections of the Constitution, etc.

'As these sections of the Constitution assailed created the board of registrars, fixed their tenure of office, defined and prescribed their duties, if they are stricken down on account of being unconstitutional, it is entirely clear that the board would have no existence and no duties to perform. So then, taking the case as made by the petition, without deciding the constitutional question attempted to be raised or intimating anything as to the correctness of the contention on that question, there would be no board to perform the duty sought to be compelled by the writ, and no duty imposed of which the petitioner can avail himself in this proceeding, to say nothing of his right to be registered. Affirmed.' 136 Ala. 228, 33 So. 820.

We do not perceive how this decision involved the adjudication of a right claimed under the Federal Constitution against the appellant. It denies the relief by way of mandamus, admitting the allegations of the petition as to the illegal character of the registration authorized in pursuance of the Alabama Constitution.

This is a ground adequate to sustain the decision and wholly independent of the rights set up by the plaintiff as secured to him by the constitutional amendments for his protection.

The plaintiff in error relies upon two cases adjudicated in this court: Wiley v. Sinkler, 179 U.S. 58, 45 L. ed. 84, 21 Sup. Ct. Rep. 17; and Swafford v. Templeton, 185 U.S. 487, 46 L. ed. 1005, 22 Sup. Ct. Rep. 783. In the former it was held that an action may be sustained in a court of the United States against election officers for refusing the plaintiff's vote for member of Congress. The allegations of the complaint are set forth in full in the statement of the case, and it appears that the board of managers were averred to be legally qualified to preside at the Federal election, and as such wrongfully refused the proffered vote of the plaintiff, a duly qualified elector, wilfully and without legal excuse. It was held that the complaint was defective for not averring that the plaintiff was a duly registered voter. It appeared that the registration law had not been held unconstitutional, and it further appeared that if such was the fact plaintiff was not in a position to impugn its constitutionality. In Swafford v. Templeton it was held that the circuit court erred in dismissing for want of jurisdiction an action kindred to that sustained in Wiley v. Sinkler, wherein the plaintiff was denied the right to vote for member of Congress, which was held to have its foundation in the Constitution of the United States, with consequent jurisdiction in a Federal court to redress a wrongful denial of the right. Neither of these cases are in point in determining our right to review the action of the state court in the case now before us. It is apparent that the thing complained of, so far as it involves rights secured under the Federal Constitution, is the action of the state of Alabama in the adoption and enforcing of a constitution with the purpose of excluding from the exercise of the right of suffrage the negro voters of the state, in violation of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The great difficulty of reaching the political action of a state through remedies afforded in the courts, state or Federal, was suggested by this court in Giles v. Harris, 189 U.S. 475, 47 L. ed. 909, 23 Sup. Ct. Rep. 639.

In reaching the conclusion that the present writs of error must be dismissed the court is not unmindful of the gravity of the statements of the complainant charging violation of a constitutional amendment which is a part of the supreme law of the land; but the right of this court to review the decisions of the highest court of a state has long been well settled, and is circumscribed by the rules established by law. We are of opinion that plaintiffs in error have not brought the cases within the statute giving to this court the right of review.

The writs of error in both cases will be dismissed.

Mr. Justice McKenna concurs in the result.

Mr. Justice Harlan dissents.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).