February 27, 1922 – Supreme Court Decides Leser v. Garnett, Affirming the Right of Women to Vote

Leser v. Garnett (258 U.S. 130, 1922) was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution had been constitutionally established.

On August 26, 1920, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was certified by the Secretary of the Department of State. The amendment reads as follows:

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 sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

After two women in Maryland registered to vote, the State of Maryland challenged whether the amendment had legitimately become part of the Constitution. The Constitution of Maryland limited suffrage to men, and the state had refused to ratify the amendment, because, well: women.

The petitioners contended, on several grounds, that the amendment had not in fact become part of the federal Constitution.

The first contention was that, so great an addition to the electorate, if made without the state’s consent, destroys its autonomy as a political body. As Justice Louis Brandeis noted in his opinion:

This amendment is in character and phraseology precisely similar to the Fifteenth. For each the same method of adoption was pursued. One cannot be valid and the other invalid. That the Fifteenth is valid, although rejected by six states, including Maryland, has been recognized and acted on for half a century.”

Justice Louis Brandeis

The second contention was that in the Constitutions of several of the 36 states named in the proclamation of the Secretary of State there were provisions which rendered inoperative the alleged ratifications by their Legislatures.

Here Brandeis observed:

. . . the function of a state Legislature in ratifying a proposed amendment to the federal Constitution, like the function of Congress in proposing the amendment, is a federal function derived from the federal Constitution; and it transcends any limitations sought to be imposed by the people of a state.”

The final contention was that the ratifying resolutions of Tennessee and of West Virginia were adopted in violation of the rules of legislative procedure prevailing in the respective states, so should not count. Brandeis pointed out that the question was immaterial since two other states since then adopted resolutions of ratification. But in addition, the Court found that as the Secretary of State in both states had accepted the ratifications by the legislatures of the two states as valid, they were valid, effectively ruling the matter as non-justiciable.

It took over 60 years for the remaining 12 states to ratify the 19th Amendment. Mississippi was the last to do so, on March 22, 1984.

The Suffragist, Saturday, June 21, 1919, image via Bryn Mawr College Library

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