Katzenbach v. Morgan, 384 U.S. 641; 86 S. Ct. 1717; 16 L. Ed. 2d 828 (1966)

Facts—Section 4(E) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided that individuals who had successfully completed six or more grades in Puerto Rican schools where a language of instruction other than English was used could not be denied the right to vote on the basis of English literacy tests. A three- judge District Court decided that the law exceeded congressional powers and violated state powers under the Tenth Amendment. In Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections (1959) the Court had previously upheld state use of literacy tests.

Question—Does Congress have power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment (the enforcement clause) to prohibit state literacy tests that would otherwise be constitutional?


ReasonsJ. Brennan (7–2). Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment enlarged congressional powers by granting Congress power to enforce equal protection provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. The issue is whether this law is an appropriate means of enforcing such legislation. Section 5 intended to give Congress broad powers similar to those it exercised under the necessary and proper clause and is similar to the enforcement clause (Section 2) of the Fifteenth Amendment. Congress had reasons to believe that its legislation limiting literacy tests furthered equal protection. Legislation designed for such purposes should not be subject to strict judicial scrutiny.

J. Harlan, dissenting, argued that voting rights were a state concern and that the Court should avoid establishing a double standard for cases involving what it considered to be “fundamental liberties” like voting rights. Harlan believed this legislation went beyond legislative remediation and effectively undermined earlier judicial constructions of the Constitution. He feared that if Congress could expand protections under its Section 5 powers, it might just as easily restrict them.

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