March 31, 1981 – First Patent Issued for Genetically Engineered Life Form; Upheld by SCOTUS

Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty was born in India in 1938 and moved to the U.S. with his wife after completing his Ph.D. in biochemistry. (His wife also had a Ph.D. in biochemistry.) Initially the couple worked at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIC), and it was there that Chakrabarty developed an interest in the bacteria pseudomonas. After six years, the couple moved to upstate New York where Chakrabarty took a job at General Electric.

During the course of Dr. Chakrabarty’s research at GE, he and an associate genetically engineered a new, stable type of pseudomonas capable of breaking down crude oil. Dr. Chakrabarty sought a patent on this process pursuant to Title 35 U.S.C. Section 101, which provided patents for people who invented or discovered “any” new and useful “manufacture” or “composition of matter.”

The request was rejected by a patent examiner and affirmed by the Patent Office Board of Appeals, stating that living things were not patentable under Section 101. This decision was reversed by the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals, which concluded that the fact that micro-organisms were alive was without legal significance for purposes of the patent law.

Sidney A. Diamond, Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks, appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court case, Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303 (1980), was argued on March 17, 1980 and decided on June 16, 1980.

The patent was granted by the USPTO on March 31, 1981, this day in history. The court held that forms of life can be patented if they are the outcome of “human ingenuity and research” and not “nature’s handiwork.”

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, delivering the opinion of the Court in a five-to-four decision, added:

Nor does the fact that genetic technology was unforeseen when Congress enacted § 101 require the conclusion that micro-organisms cannot qualify as patentable subject matter until Congress expressly authorizes such protection. The unambiguous language of § 101 fairly embraces respondent’s invention. Arguments against patentability under § 101, based on potential hazards that may be generated by genetic research, should be addressed to the Congress and the Executive, not to the Judiciary.”

The ruling was of immense importance for the growth of biotechnology companies, clearing the way for patents to be issued also on genetically-engineered mice and other animals.

Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty in 2009

Upon his death on July 10, 2020, the UIC posted an obituary noting:

Chakrabarty’s fame as the name on the first patent for a recombinant microbe led to a second career as an expert and lecturer on legal issues of patenting and intellectual property rights of biological significance. He sat on many American and international committees and taught in workshops for American and international judges on these matters. For his achievements in genetic engineering technology, he was awarded the prestigious civilian Padma Shri by the government of India in 2007.”

March 10, 1919 – Supreme Court Decides Debs v. United States

Eugene Victor “Gene” Debs, born on November 5, 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana, was an American socialist who ran five times for President of the United States, the last time from a prison cell.

Debs started working on railroads at age 14, and eventually founded the American Railway Union (ARU), leading it in the Pullman Strike of 1894. President Grover Cleveland used the US Army to break the strike. As a leader of the ARU, Debs was convicted of federal charges for defying a court injunction against the strike and served six months in prison.

Historian Lawrence Wittner reports:

As Debs brooded on these events, he concluded that, although industry-wide unions were vital, they could not win their battles for economic and social justice while giant corporations dominated the government. In Europe, workers were forming labor and socialist parties. Why not in America? At the beginning of 1897, in an open letter to the remnants of the American Railway Union, he wrote: ‘I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough.’”

Debs emerged from jail committed to socialism, and was a founding member of the Social Democracy of America (1897), the Social Democratic Party of America (1898), and the Socialist Party of America (1901).

Eugene V. Debs in 1897

Eugene V. Debs in 1897

Debs ran as a Socialist candidate for President of the United States in 1900 (earning 0.63% of the popular vote), 1904 (2.98%), 1908 (2.83%), 1912 (5.99%), and 1920 (3.41%). A charismatic speaker, Debs drew many to the Socialist Party. At its peak in 1912, Socialists held 1,200 public offices in 340 American cities, including 79 mayors in 24 states.

Campaign poster from his 1912 Presidential campaign, featuring Debs and Vice Presidential candidate Emil Seidel

Campaign poster from his 1912 Presidential campaign, featuring Debs and Vice Presidential candidate Emil Seidel

But with the declaration of war in April 1917, the fortunes of the party changed. The Socialists had declared their “unalterable opposition to the war” and Congress responded by passing the Espionage Act of 1917 to prosecute Socialist Party leaders. The Act was intended to prohibit interference with military operations or recruitment, to prevent insubordination in the military, and to prevent the support of U.S. enemies during wartime.

As Wittner recounts, the federal government began prosecuting Socialist Party leaders, and the postmaster general banned virtually every Socialist newspaper, magazine, or other publication from the mails. Socialist Party headquarters around the nation were raided, their records seized, and their officers tried and imprisoned.

1918 Canton, Ohio Rally

1918 Canton, Ohio Rally

Debs was outraged, and on June 16, 1918 in Canton, Ohio, he delivered a famous speech in which he pointed out that “[w]ars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder.” Even worse, as he charged:

The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.”

He also noted, ironically:

It is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.”

Less than two weeks later, Debs was indicted by a federal grand jury for violating the Espionage Act, and sentenced to ten years in prison. The indictment against Debs ran 139 pages. It listed ten counts corresponding to ten of the twelve offenses enumerated in the amended Espionage Law. As David Sterling pointed out in “In Defense of Debs: The Lawyers and the Espionage Act Case.” Indiana Magazine of History 83, no. 1 (1987): 17-42, online here), “there were no specific citations taken from the Canton address; instead, after each count the whole speech was reprinted.” Sterling added that theoretically, if Debs had been convicted on all counts, he could have been sentenced to two hundred years in prison and fined $100,000. (Be sure to read Sterling’s detailed account of the tactics and arguments of the defense in the trial.)

The case reached the Supreme Court as Debs v. United States, 249 U.S. 211 (1919), and two months later on this day in history, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., writing for a unanimous court, affirmed the conviction of Debs for obstructing the nation’s recruitment and enlistment services.

On December 23, 1921, President Warren G. Harding commuted Debs’ sentence to time served, effective Christmas Day. He did not issue a pardon.

Debs leaving the federal penitentiary in Atlanta on Christmas Day 1921, following commutation of his sentence

Debs leaving the federal penitentiary in Atlanta on Christmas Day 1921, following commutation of his sentence

When Debs was released from the Atlanta Penitentiary, the other prisoners sent him off with “a roar of cheers” and a crowd of 50,000 greeted his return to Terre Haute to the accompaniment of band music.

Debs spent his remaining years trying to recover his health which was severely undermined by prison confinement. In late 1926, he died of heart failure at the age of 70.

You can watch a video of Mark Ruffalo delivering an excerpt of Debs’ speech of June 16, 1918 here:

Debs v. United States, 249 U.S. 211 (1919)

March 7, 1927 – Supreme Court Decides Nixon v. Herndon, Striking Down Texas Law Forbidding Blacks from Voting in Democratic Primary

Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536 (1927) was a United States Supreme Court decision which struck down a 1923 Texas law forbidding blacks from voting in the Texas Democratic Party primary.

In Texas, as in other Southern states, the Democratic Party was the dominant and controlling political party. Voting in the primary was for all intents and purposes equivalent to voting in a general election.

This case was one of four supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that challenged these all-white primaries.

Blacks were denied the right to vote in the primaries pursuant to a statute of Texas enacted in May, 1923 (Acts 38th Leg. 2d Called Sess. (1923) c. 32, § 1 (Vernon’s Ann. Civ. St. 1925, art. 3107)), by the words of which “in no event shall a negro be eligible to participate in a Democratic party primary election held in the State of Texas,” etc.. . The plaintiff argued that this statute was contrary to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., writing for the unanimous court, found that “it seems to us hard to imagine a more direct and obvious infringement of the Fourteenth.” He continued:

That Amendment ‘not only gave citizenship and the privileges of citizenship to persons of color, but it denied to any State the power to withhold from them the equal protection of the laws. * * * What is this but declaring that the law in the States shall be the same for the black as for the white; that all persons, whether colored or white, shall stand equal before the laws of the States, and, in regard to the colored race, for whose protection the amendment was primarily designed, that no discrimination shall be made against them by law because of their color?’”

He concluded:

The statute of Texas in the teeth of the prohibitions referred to assumes to forbid negroes to take part in a primary election the importance of which we have indicated, discriminating against them by the distinction of color alone. States may do a good deal of classifying that it is difficult to believe rational, but there are limits, and it is too clear for extended argument that color cannot be made the basis of a statutory classification affecting the right set up in this case.”

Texan white supremacists wouldn’t be daunted. They promptly enacted a new provision to continue restrictions on black voter participation, granting authority to political parties to determine who should vote in their primaries. It was not until Smith v. Allwright (321 U.S. 649, 1944) that the Supreme Court finally and decisively prohibited the white primary.

February 15, 1879 – President Rutherford B. Hayes Signs Law Admitting Women to the SCOTUS Bar

On this day in history, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed, as the Constitution Center reports:

‘An act to relieve certain legal disabilities of women,’ which read that ‘any woman who shall have been a member of the bar of the highest court of any State or Territory or of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia for the space of three years, and shall have maintained a good standing before such court, and who shall be a person of good moral character, shall, on motion, and the production of such record, be admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States.’”

19th President of the United States (1877-1881), Rutherford B. Hayes

In so doing, President Hayes circumvented the finding of the U.S. Supreme Court in Bradwell v. The State (83 US 130, 1873) in which Myra Bradwell asserted her right to a license to practice law in Illinois by virtue of her status as a United States citizen. The judges of the Illinois Supreme Court denied her application with only one judge dissenting. The US Supreme Court upheld the Illinois decision, with Justice Samuel Miller arguing that there was no agreement this right depended on citizenship.

Justice Joseph Bradley went further, in a concurrence worth quoting:

The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. The Constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood. The harmony, not to say identity, of interest and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband.”

Justice Joseph P. Bradley

It should also be noted that it was due to Bradley’s intervention that the white defendants charged in the Colfax Massacre of 1873 were freed, after he happened to attend their trial and ruled that the federal law they were charged under was unconstitutional.

The Colfax massacre occurred on Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873, in Colfax, Louisiana. An estimated 62-153 black militia men were killed while surrendering to a mob of former Confederate soldiers, members of the Ku Klux Klan and the White League. Historian Eric Foner described the massacre as the worst instance of racial violence during Reconstruction.

In response to these incidents and others throughout the South, President Grant ordered federal troops to restore order. But most of the relief was temporary. In his January 13, 1875 message to Congress, Grant complained that “every one of the Colfax miscreants goes unwhipped of justice, and no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous crime.”

Ironically, it was President Grant who had nominated Justice Bradley to the court.

December 29, 1971 – Death of Supreme Court Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan II

John Marshall Harlan II was born on May 20, 1899 in Chicago, Illinois, and was named after his grandfather, who was an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court form 1877 to 1911.

Harlan went to Princeton where he earned a Rhodes Scholarship to study law at the University of Oxford. After returning home, he enrolled in New York Law School, getting his degree in 1924 while apprenticing at a New York law firm. His mentor there appointed him as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He returned to private practice after 1930.

He returned to public service in 1951 and was nominated by President Eisenhower to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1954. A year later, in January 1955, President Eisenhower nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court, to take the seat of the recently deceased Justice Robert H. Jackson.

The Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States (Artist: Gardener Cox)

The Oyez site reports that Congressional leaders, especially those from the South, were worried about the potential of a liberal justice being appointed to the Court following the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Therefore, Harlan appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee prior to his confirmation in order to respond to questions about his judicial philosophy. This had never been done before, but it set a precedent for every future Supreme Court nomination.

Harlan was confirmed on March 17, 1955 by a 71-11 vote and took office that same day. (Nine of the eleven senators who voted against his confirmation were southerners who were deeply concerned that Harlan would support desegregation and other civil rights initiatives.)

While Justice Harlan was considered to be a member of the conservative wing of the court, and someone who believed in a limited federal judiciary, he did regularly vote to expand civil rights. He voted with the majority to compel public officials to desegregate Arkansas public schools (Cooper v. Aaron) and joined the unanimous decision to end the ban on interracial marriages (Loving v. Virginia).

By the late 1960s, Harlan’s health started to deteriorate, beginning with his eyesight. He retired from the Court on September 23, 1971 and died of cancer at age 72 on December 29, 1971, on this day in history.

After Harlan’s retirement, President Nixon appointed William Rehnquist to replace him.

October 11, 1872 – Birth of Harlan F. Stone, 12th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Harlan Fiske Stone, born on this day in Chesterfield, New Hampshire, graduated from Columbia Law School in 1898. From 1899 to 1902 he taught law at Columbia Law School, becoming a professor in 1902 and the dean in 1910, a position he held until 1923. Columbia reports that as a teacher and as dean, Stone was known for taking a great interest in his students, who called themselves “Stone-Agers” in his honor. In 1946, the year of Stone’s death, the Columbia Law School faculty established the Harlan Fiske Stone Scholars. These scholarships are awarded each year in recognition of academic achievement by students in each of the three J.D. classes and in the LL.M. Program. That same year, the Harlan Fiske Stone professorship in constitutional law was established.

Harlan Fiske Stone, Chief Justice of the United States

From 1924 to 1925 he served as U.S. Attorney General under President Calvin Coolidge, with whom he had attended Amherst College.

In 1925, Coolidge nominated Stone to succeed retiring Associate Justice Joseph McKenna, and Stone won Senate confirmation with little opposition. On the Taft Court, Stone joined with Justices Holmes and Brandeis in calling for judicial restraint and deference to the legislative will. On the Hughes Court, Stone and Justices Brandeis and Cardozo formed a liberal bloc called the Three Musketeers that generally voted to uphold the constitutionality of the New Deal.

(“The Three Musketeers” were opposed by “the four horsemen,” consisting of Justices James Clark McReynolds, George Sutherland, Willis Van Devanter, and Pierce Butler.) Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and Justice Owen J. Roberts controlled the balance.)

By 1941 most of the others on the court were gone, with only Stone and Roberts remaining.

Stone’s support of the New Deal was no doubt instrumental in leading to his nomination as Chief Justice by FDR in June, 1941, following the retirement of Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Stone, aged 69, was quickly confirmed by the United States Senate sworn in on July 3. He remained in this post until his sudden death in 1946; his was one of the shortest terms of any Chief Justice. He was also the only justice to have occupied all nine seniority positions on the bench, having started out as the most junior Associate Justice, working his way to most senior Associate Justice, and then to Chief Justice.

Stone’s tenure as Chief Justice was not without controversy. He upheld the President’s power to try Nazi saboteurs captured on American soil by military tribunals in Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1 (1942). The court’s handling of this case has been the subject of scrutiny and controversy. One scholar, for example, argues that irrespective of congressional authorization, such extra-Judicial prosecution encroaches upon quintessential Article III functions and thereby violates the separation of powers.

Additionally, as Chief Justice, Stone described the Nuremberg court as “a fraud” to Germans and a “high-grade lynching party,” even though his colleague and successor as Associate Justice, Robert H. Jackson, served as the chief U.S. prosecutor.

According to William Rehnquist in a 2004 speech:

Stone’s biographer, Alpheus T. Mason, sums up Stone’s views of Jackson’s service this way: ‘For Stone, Justice Jackson’s participation in the Nuremberg Trials combined three major sources of irritation: disapproval in principle of non-judicial work, strong objection to the trials on legal and political grounds, the inconvenience and increased burden of work entailed. Even if the Chief Justice had wholly approved the trials themselves, he would have disapproved Jackson’s role in them. If he had felt differently about the task in which Jackson was engaged, he might have been somewhat less annoyed by his colleague’s absence.'”

It is worth noting, (again per Rehnquist):

One of Stone’s complaints was that he first learned of Jackson’s acceptance of the role of prosecutor when it was announced by President Truman. One would think that Jackson would have at least consulted Stone before accepting the job; not that Stone had any authority to forbid his taking it, but that advance notice would have made it more palatable to Stone even though he still disagreed.”

Just imagine if he had learned of the appointment by tweet….

Stone’s death came after he was suddenly stricken while in an open session of the Supreme Court. Justice Hugo Black called the Court into a brief recess, and physicians were summoned. Stone died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 22, 1946 at his Washington D.C. home. He is buried at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., along with three other justices buried there (Willis Van Devanter, John Marshall Harlan, and Stephen Johnson Field).

August 19, 1981 – Sandra Day O’Connor Nominated to the Supreme Court

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, was born in El Paso, Texas on March 26, 1930. At sixteen, she was admitted to Stanford University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. In 1950 she was admitted to Stanford Law, completing the course in just two years instead of the usual three. She graduated third in her class, with one of the students ahead of her being fellow future justice, William H. Rehnquist. As Oyez reports:

Despite her impeccable qualifications, Sandra Day O’Connor struggled to find employment in the legal field due to a heavy bias against women as attorneys. She began her legal career working for the county attorney of San Mateo for free, after turning down a paid position as a legal secretary. Once she proved herself as an asset, she got a job as the deputy county attorney.”

Moving to Arizona with her husband, in 1965 she began working as the Assistant Attorney General. In 1969, she was appointed to the Arizona State Senate to fill a vacated seat. In 1970, she kept that seat when she was elected to the State Senate for a full term as a Republican. She was reelected to that position twice, even serving as the first female majority leader in any state senate.

In 1975 she won the election for a seat in the Superior Court of Maricopa County, and was appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court of Appeals four years later. She worked in the state supreme court for only two years before President Ronald Reagan nominated her on this day in 1981 to become the first female justice to serve on the United States Supreme Court. She was unanimously approved by the Senate.

As she later told NPR:

I was working in my office on the Arizona Court of Appeals. I was at the court in my chambers when the telephone rang. And it was the White House calling for me, and I was told that the president was waiting to speak to me. That was quite a shock, but I accepted the phone call, and it was President Reagan, and he said, ‘Sandra?’ ‘Yes, Mr. President?’ ‘Sandra, I’d like to announce your nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court tomorrow. Is that all right with you?’ Well, now, that’s kind of a shock, wouldn’t you say?”

Sandra Day O’Connor is sworn in as an associate justice by Chief Justice Warren Burger on Sept. 25, 1981. Holding two family Bibles is husband John Jay O’Connor.
Michael Evans/AP

Two years after O’Connor joined the Court, The New York Times published an editorial which mentioned the “nine men” of the “SCOTUS,” or Supreme Court of the United States. O’Connor responded with a letter to the editor reminding the Times that the Court was no longer composed of nine men and referred to herself as FWOTSC (First Woman On The Supreme Court).

Over the course of her two decades on the court, the conservative justice became known as a somewhat unpredictable voter. She was known for being a majority builder whenever possible, but also for being a swing vote in the divisive cases. In cases lacking a consensus, she wrote as narrow a decision as possible. She retired from the bench in 2006 to care for her husband, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

On August 12, 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

July 22, 1937 – U.S. Senate Rejects FDR’s Court-Packing Plan

On February 5, 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt unveiled the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, which proposed adding one new judge to the federal judicial system for every active judge over the age of seventy. The result would create fifty new judgeships, including up to six new Supreme Court justices.

Roosevelt had been frustrated with the US Supreme Court’s treatment of some of his economic reforms. During his first term, the Supreme Court had struck down several New Deal measures intended to bolster economic recovery during the Great Depression. The President’s plan would allow him to appoint new judges friendly to his administration, although FDR couched it in terms suggesting that he was trying to streamline the Court system and ease its caseload.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

The plan caused an uproar from legislators, bar associations, and the public. The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the bill, and subsequently failed to report it favorably out of committee.

On February 8, 1937, the Senate Judiciary Committee met to consider President Roosevelt's request to increase membership on the Supreme Court.  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

On February 8, 1937, the Senate Judiciary Committee met to consider President Roosevelt’s request to increase membership on the Supreme Court.  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

The full Senate began debating the measure in July, and on this day in history – July 22, 1937 – the U.S. Senate rejected the proposed plan by a vote of 70-20. 

Nevertheless, FDR managed to get what he wanted eventually by serving twelve years in office, which enabled him to appoint eight justices to the Court.

You can listen to FDR’s “fireside chat” on March 9, 1937 in which he discusses the court packing proposal, here.

July 11, 1964 – Murder of Lemuel Penn, African American U.S. Army Veteran, in Georgia for Driving While Black

Lemeul Penn, born September 19, 1915, was the Assistant Superintendent of Washington, D.C. public schools, a decorated veteran of World War II, a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army Reserve, and the father of three young children. He was murdered at age 48 on this day in history by members of the Ku Klux Klan, nine days after passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Lemuel Penn

Penn was driving home, together with two other black Reserve officers, to Washington, D.C. from Fort Benning, Georgia where they had been training. They were spotted by three white members of a violent KKK group called the Black Shirts in Athens, Georgia, who noticed the D.C. plates on the car. One of the killers apparently said: “That must be one of President Johnson’s boys” and decided to follow the car. He added: “I’m going to kill me a nigger.”

Just before the highway crossed the Broad River, the Klansmen’s car pulled alongside the car of the three black men. Two of the group raised their shotguns and fired.

Penn was killed. The three white men were identified as the ones who chased the trio of Army reservists. The two shooters were tried in state superior court but found not guilty by an all-white jury.

The federal government then successfully prosecuted the men for violations under the new Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed just nine days before Penn’s murder. The case was instrumental in the creation of a Justice Department task force whose work culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court in United States v. Guest (383 U.S. 745, 1966)

The appellees, six private individuals, had been indicted under 18 U.S.C. § 241 “for conspiring to deprive Negro citizens in the vicinity of Athens, Georgia, of the free exercise and enjoyment of rights secured to them by the Constitution and laws of the United States, viz., the right to use state facilities without discrimination on the basis of race, the right freely to engage in interstate travel, and the right to equal enjoyment of privately owned places of public accommodation, now guaranteed by Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The defendants moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that it did not involve rights which are attributes of national citizenship, to which it deemed § 241 solely applicable, and dismissed the indictment. The prosecution appealed, arguing that the indictment alleged, in part, a denial of rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Justice Potter Stewart

The Supreme Court held, in an 8-1 opinion authored by Justice Potter Stewart, that protection of the 14th Amendment extended to citizens who suffer rights deprivations at the hands of private conspiracies, where there is minimal state participation in the conspiracy. The Court also held that there is Constitutional right to travel from state to state. If the predominate purpose of the conspiracy is to prevent the exercise of the right of travel, or to oppress a person of that right, as was the case here, then whether or not motivated by racial discrimination, the conspiracy becomes a proper object of federal law under which the indictment was brought. Therefore, the federal indictment was based on an offense under the laws of the United States.

June 21, 1915 – The Supreme Court Decides Guinn v. United States

The 1870 ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution barred each state from denying the right to vote on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In response, several Southern states established constitutional provisions designed to disenfranchise African-American voters without explicitly violating the Fifteenth Amendment.

One of these techniques was the “grandfather clause.” As an online law and legal reference library explains:

There were many varieties of this kind of law, which said that people who had been voting before a certain date–or whose grandfathers had been voting before that date–did not have to register; they were simply allowed to vote. That way, registration rules could be made very complicated, or voter registration could be limited to a short, inconvenient time.”

BlackPast, an African American history site, details how developments in Oklahoma disenfranchised blacks:

Oklahoma’s original 1907 Constitution allowed men of all races to vote. Within one year of statehood, however, the legislature amended the original State Constitution to provide for a literacy test, e.g., the ability to read and write any section of the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma. That provision exempted two classes of individuals and their descendants from the requirement:  1) male citizens who were born on or before January 1, 1866 were entitled to vote; and 2) male descendants of people who at that time resided in a foreign nation were also allowed to vote. This provision allowed white U.S. citizens, as well as European immigrants and their descendants, to cast ballots. The provision also stipulated that a lineal descendant of males in these categories shall not be denied the right to register and vote because of their inability to read and write.  The effect of the state constitutional provision was to prevent former male slaves and their descendants from voting since the vast majority of black males could not vote on January 1, 1866.”

An NPR article on Guinn v. U.S. notes that although African-Americans typically lacked the financial resources to file suit, the NAACP, founded in 1909, persuaded a U.S. attorney to challenge Oklahoma’s grandfather clause, which had been enacted in 1910.

In its unanimous opinion delivered by Chief Justice Edward Douglass White Jr. on June 21, 1915, the Supreme Court ruled in Guinn v. U.S. (238 U.S. 347, 1915) that Oklahoma’s grandfather clause – having been written in a way to serve “no rational purpose” other than to deny African American citizens the right to vote — violated the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The convictions of Oklahoma election officials Frank Guinn and J.J. Beal were thus upheld.

Justice Edward Douglass White

However, Justice White unfortunately added:

No time need be spent on the question of the validity of the literacy test, considered alone, since, as we have seen, its establishment was but the exercise by the State of a lawful power vested in it not subject to our supervision, and, indeed, its validity is admitted.”

Having received this “okay” from the court to come up with other ways to take away the vote from blacks, the Oklahoma Legislature met in special session to grandfather in the grandfather clause. The new law said those who had been registered in 1914 — whites under the old system — were automatically registered to vote, while African-Americans could only register between April 30 and May 11, 1916, or forever be disenfranchised.

The Supreme Court struck down this law as well, but not until 23 years later in Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268 (1939). U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, writing for the court, observed that the new 1916 law “was obviously directed towards the consequences of the decision in Guinn v. United States, supra.”

Frankfurter thought there was “no escape from the conclusion that the means chosen as substitutes for the invalidated ‘grandfather clause’ were themselves invalid under the Fifteenth Amendment. They operated unfairly against the very class on whose behalf the protection of the Constitution was here successfully invoked.”

Justice Felix Frankfurter

Voter suppression has continued of course. As the Brennan Center, which chronicles efforts to suppress the vote, argues, over the last 20 years, states have put barriers in front of the ballot box — imposing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, gerrymandering, and purging voter rolls. These efforts received a boost when the Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and have kept significant numbers of eligible voters from the polls, hitting all Americans, but placing special burdens on racial minorities, poor people, and young and old voters.

With the surge of Democratic voters in the 2020 elections, Republican legislatures around the country have stepped up their repressive measures. The Brennan Center reports that overall, lawmakers introduced at least 389 restrictive bills in 48 states in the 2021 legislative sessions.