Amdt15.S1.1.1.2 The Judicial View of the Amendment

Fifteenth Amendment, Section 1:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude–

In its initial appraisals of this Amendment, the Supreme Court appeared disposed to emphasize only its purely negative aspects. The Fifteenth Amendment, it announced, did not confer the right . . . [to vote] upon any one, but merely invested the citizens of the United States with a new constitutional right which is . . . exemption from discrimination in the exercise of the elective franchise on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.1 But in subsequent cases, the Court, conceding that this article has originally been construed as giving no affirmative right . . . to vote and as having been designed primarily to prevent discrimination, professed to be able to see that under some circumstances it may operate as the immediate source of a right to vote. In all cases where the former slave-holding States had not removed from their Constitutions the words ‘white man’ as a qualification for voting, this provision did, in effect, confer on him the right to vote, because . . . it annulled the discriminating word white, and this left him in the enjoyment of the same right as white persons. And such would be the effect of any future constitutional provision of a State which would give the right of voting exclusively to white people. . . .2

Although the immediate concern of the Amendment was to guarantee to the emancipated slaves the right to vote, the Amendment is cast in fundamental terms, terms transcending the particular controversy, and grants protection to all persons, not just members of a particular race.3 Moreover, the Court has construed race broadly to comprehend classifications based on ancestry as well as those based on race. 4 Ancestry can be a proxy for race, the Court has explained, finding such a proxy in Hawaii’s limitation of the right to vote in a statewide election for an office responsible for administering a trust for the benefit of persons who can trace their ancestry to Hawaiian inhabitants of 1778. 5

Footnotes

  1.  United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 217-18 (1876); United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542, 566 (1876).
  2.  Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651, 665 (1884); Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347, 363 (1915). A state constitutional provision limiting the right of suffrage to free white male citizens was automatically nullified by ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. Neal v. Delaware, 103 U.S. 370 (1881).
  3.  Rice v. Cayetano, 528 U.S. 495 (2000).
  4.  Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915) (invalidating Oklahoma exception to literacy requirement for any lineal descendants of persons entitled to vote in 1866).
  5.  Rice v. Cayetano, 528 U.S. 495, 514 (2000).