Williams v. Mississippi , 170 U.S. 213 ( 1898 )

  • 170 U.S. 213 (1898)


    No. 531.

    Supreme Court of United States.

    Argued and submitted March 18, 1898.
    Decided April 25, 1898.

    *217 *218 Mr. Cornelius J. Jones for plaintiff in error.

    Mr. C.B. Mitchell, for defendant in error, submitted on his brief.

    *219 MR. JUSTICE McKENNA, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

    The question presented is, are the provisions of the constitution of the State of Mississippi and the laws enacted to enforce the same repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States? That amendment and its effect upon the rights of the colored race have been considered by this court in a number of cases, and it has been uniformly held that the Constitution of the United States, as amended, forbids, so far as civil and political rights are concerned, discriminations by the General Government, or by the States, against any citizen because of his race; but it has also been held, in a very recent case, to justify a removal from a state court to a Federal court of a cause in which such rights are alleged to be denied, that such denial must be the result of the constitution or laws of the State, not of the administration of them. Nor can the conduct of a criminal trial in a state court be reviewed by this court unless the trial is had under some statute repugnant to the Constitution of the United *220 States, or was so conducted as to deprive the accused of some right or immunity secured to him by that instrument. Upon this general subject this court in Gibson v. Mississippi, 162 U.S. 566, 581, after referring to previous cases, said: "But those cases were held to have also decided that the Fourteenth Amendment was broader than the provisions of section 641 of the Revised Statutes; that since that section authorized the removal of a criminal prosecution before trial, it did not embrace a case in which a right is denied by judicial action during a trial, or in the sentence, or in the mode of executing the sentence; that for such denials arising from judicial action after a trial commenced, the remedy lay in the revisory power of the higher courts of the State, and ultimately in the power of review which this court may exercise over their judgments whenever rights, privileges or immunities claimed under the Constitution or laws of the United States are withheld or violated; and that the denial or inability to enforce in the judicial tribunals of the States rights secured by any law providing for the equal civil rights of citizens of the United States to which section 641 refers and on account of which a criminal prosecution may be removed from a state court, is primarily, if not exclusively, a denial of such rights or an inability to enforce them resulting from the constitution or laws of the State rather than a denial first made manifest at or during the trial of the case."

    It is not asserted by plaintiff in error that either the constitution of the State or its laws discriminate in terms against the negro race, either as to the elective franchise or the privilege or duty of sitting on juries. These results, if we understand plaintiff in error, are alleged to be effected by the powers vested in certain administrative officers.

    Plaintiff in error says:

    "Section 241 of the constitution of 1890 prescribes the qualifications for electors; that residence in the State for two years, one year in the precinct of the applicant, must be effected; that he is twenty-one years or over of age, having paid all taxes legally due of him for two years prior to 1st day of February of the year he offers to vote. Not having *221 been convicted of theft, arson, rape, receiving money or goods under false pretences, bigamy, embezzlement.

    "Section 242 of the constitution provides the mode of registration. That the legislature shall provide by law for registration of all persons entitled to vote at any election, and that all persons offering to register shall take the oath; that they are not disqualified for voting by reason of any of the crimes named in the constitution of this State; that they will truly answer all questions propounded to them concerning their antecedents so far as they relate to the applicant's right to vote, and also as to their residence before their citizenship in the district in which such application for registration is made. The court readily sees the scheme. If the applicant swears, as he must do, that he is not disqualified by reason of the crimes specified, and that he has effected the required residence, what right has he to answer all questions as to his former residence? Section 244 of the constitution requires that the applicant for registration after January, 1892, shall be able to read any section of the constitution, or he shall be able to understand the same (being any section of the organic law), or give a reasonable interpretation thereof. Now we submit that these provisions vest in the administrative officers the full power, under section 242, to ask all sorts of vain, impertinent questions, and it is with that officer to say whether the questions relate to the applicant's right to vote; this officer can reject whomsoever he chooses, and register whomsoever he chooses, for he is vested by the constitution with that power. Under section 244 it is left with the administrative officer to determine whether the applicant reads, understands or interprets the section of the constitution designated. The officer is the sole judge of the examination of the applicant, and even though the applicant be qualified, it is left with the officer to so determine; and the said officer can refuse him registration."

    To make the possible dereliction of the officers the dereliction of the constitution and laws, the remarks of the Supreme Court of the State are quoted by plaintiff in error as to their intent. The constitution provides for the payment of a poll *222 tax, and by a section of the code its payment cannot be compelled by a seizure and sale of property. We gather from the brief of counsel that its payment is a condition of the right to vote, and in a case to test whether its payment was or was not optional, Ratcliff v. Beale, 20 So. 865, the Supreme Court of the State said: "Within the field of permissible action under the limitations imposed by the Federal Constitution, the convention swept the field of expedients, to obstruct the exercise of suffrage by the negro race." And further the court said, speaking of the negro race: "By reason of its previous condition of servitude and dependencies, this race had acquired or accentuated certain peculiarities of habit, of temperament, and of character, which clearly distinguished it as a race from the whites. A patient, docile people; but careless, landless, migratory within narrow limits, without forethought; and its criminal members given to furtive offences, rather than the robust crimes of the whites. Restrained by the Federal Constitution from discriminating against the negro race, the convention discriminates against its characteristics, and the offences to which its criminal members are prone." But nothing tangible can be deduced from this. If weakness were to be taken advantage of, it was to be done "within the field of permissible action under the limitations imposed by the Federal Constitution," and the means of it were the alleged characteristics of the negro race, not the administration of the law by officers of the State. Besides, the operation of the constitution and laws is not limited by their language or effects to one race. They reach weak and vicious white men as well as weak and vicious black men, and whatever is sinister in their intention, if anything, can be prevented by both races by the exertion of that duty which voluntarily pays taxes and refrains from crime.

    It cannot be said, therefore, that the denial of the equal protection of the laws arises primarily from the constitution and laws of Mississippi, nor is there any sufficient allegation of an evil and discriminating administration of them. The only allegation is "... by granting a discretion to the said officers, as mentioned in the several sections of the constitution *223 of the State, and the statute of the State adopted under the said constitution, the use of which discretion can be and has been used by said officers in the said Washington County to the end here complained of, to wit, the abridgment of the elective franchise of the colored voters of Washington County, that such citizens are denied the right to be selected as jurors to serve in the Circuit Court of the county, and that this denial to them of the right to equal protection and benefits of the laws of the State of Mississippi on account of their color and race, resulting from the exercise of the discretion partial to the white citizens, is in accordance with and the purpose and intent of the framers of the present constitution of said State... ."

    It will be observed that there is nothing direct and definite in this allegation either as to means or time as affecting the proceedings against the accused. There is no charge against the officers to whom is submitted the selection of grand or petit jurors, or those who procure the lists of the jurors. There is an allegation of the purpose of the convention to disfranchise citizens of the colored race, but with this we have no concern, unless the purpose is executed by the constitution or laws or by those who administer them. If it is done in the latter way, how or by what means should be shown. We gather from the statements of the motion that certain officers are invested with discretion in making up lists of electors, and that this discretion can be and has been exercised against the colored race, and from these lists jurors are selected. The Supreme Court of Mississippi, however, decided, in a case presenting the same questions as the one at bar, "that jurors are not selected from or with reference to any lists furnished by such election officers." Dixon v. The State, Nov. 9, 1896, 20 So. 839.

    We do not think that this case is brought within the ruling in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356. In that case the ordinances passed on discriminated against laundries conducted in wooden buildings. For the conduct of these the consent of the board of supervisors was required, and not for the conduct of laundries in brick or stone buildings. It was *224 admitted that there were about 320 laundries in the city and county of San Francisco, of which 240 were owned and conducted by subjects of China, and of the whole number 310 were constructed of wood, the same material that constitutes nine tenths of the houses of the city, and that the capital invested was not less than two hundred thousand dollars.

    It was alleged that 150 Chinamen were arrested, and not one of the persons who were conducting the other eighty laundries and who were not Chinamen. It was also admitted "that petitioner and 200 of his countrymen similarly situated petitioned the board of supervisors for permission to continue their business in the various houses which they had been occupying and using for laundries for more than twenty years, and such petitions were denied, and all the petitions of those who were not Chinese, with one exception of Mrs. Mary Meagles, were granted."

    The ordinances were attacked as being void on their face, and as being within the prohibition of the Fourteenth Amendment, but even if not so, that they were void by reason of their administration. Both contentions were sustained.

    Mr. Justice Matthews said that the ordinance drawn in question "does not describe a rule and conditions for the regulation of the use of property for laundry purposes, to which all similarly situated may conform. It allows without restriction the use for such purposes of buildings of brick or stone; but as to wooden buildings, constituting all those in previous use, divides the owners or occupiers into two classes, not having respect to their personal character and qualifications for the business, nor the situation and nature and adaptation of the buildings themselves, but merely by an arbitrary line, on one side of which are those who are permitted to pursue their industry by the mere will and consent of the supervisors, and on the other those from whom that consent is withheld, at their mere will and pleasure." The ordinances, therefore, were on their face repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment. The court, however, went further and said: "This conclusion and the reasoning on which it is based are deductions from the face of the ordinance, as to its *225 necessary tendency and ultimate actual operation. In the present cases we are not obliged to reason from the probable to the actual, and pass upon the validity of the ordinances complained of as tried merely by the opportunities which their terms afford of unequal and unjust discrimination in their administration. For the cases present the ordinances in actual operation, and the facts shown establish an administration directed so exclusively against a particular class of persons as to warrant and require the conclusion that, whatever may have been the intent of the ordinances as adopted, they are applied by the public authorities charged with their administration, and thus representing the State itself, with a mind so unequal and oppressive as to amount to a practical denial by the State of that equal protection of the laws which is secured to the petitioners, as to all other persons, by the broad and benign provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Though the law itself be fair on its face and impartial in appearance, yet, if it is applied and administered by public authority with an evil eye and an unequal hand, so as practically to make unjust and illegal discriminations between persons in similar circumstances, material to their rights, the denial of equal justice is still within the prohibition of the Constitution. This principle of interpretation has been sanctioned in Henderson v. Mayor of New York, 92 U.S. 259; Chy Lung v. Freeman, 92 U.S. 275; Ex parte Virginia, 100 U.S. 339; Neal v. Delaware, 103 U.S. 370; and Soon Hing v. Crowley, 113 U.S. 703."

    This comment is not applicable to the constitution of Mississippi and its statutes. They do not on their face discriminate between the races, and it has not been shown that their actual administration was evil, only that evil was possible under them.

    It follows, therefore, that the judgment must be


Document Info

DocketNumber: 531

Citation Numbers: 170 U.S. 213, 18 S. Ct. 583, 42 L. Ed. 1012, 1898 U.S. LEXIS 1540

Judges: McKenna, After Stating the Case

Filed Date: 4/25/1898

Precedential Status: Precedential

Modified Date: 4/15/2017

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