Filed Date: Sept. 4, 1958
Closed Date: Jan. 24, 1961
Clearinghouse coding complete
In this case brought under the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the United States alleged that the Registrars of Terrell County, GA purposefully delayed and arbitrarily denied Black voters' registrations in order to maintain racial disparity among registered voters in the county. Led by Charles Bloch, one of the leading segregationist attorneys of the era, defendants used this case to challenge the constitutionality of part of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Eventually it reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld the statute.
The case was filed in the Middle District of Georgia on September 4, 1958 and assigned to Chief Judge Thomas Davis. Defendants were charged with accepting and executing voter registrations for qualified citizens in the county. The United States' complaint identified at least twelve instances where Black applicants were delayed as much as 17 months, when white applicants in the same timeframe had their applications processed within two weeks. The complaint further alleged that this was purposefully done not only to delay and discourage voter registrations but also to subject Black applicants to a more-stringent literacy test that was enacted in Georgia in March 1958. The complaint furthermore identified five college-educated Black citizens who were denied voting registration for failing to pass the literacy test, despite their educational pedigrees' clearly suggesting that they could read and write.
Shortly after the case was filed, all defendants filed a motion to dismiss. The motion argued four main points, three of which were quickly disposed of by the District Court: that the case could not be sustained as it sounded neither in law (because it sought injunctive relief) nor in equity (because the U.S. had not exhausted all other available remedies); that Congress had no authority to authorize the Attorney General to file this voting rights suit; and that the court should dismiss the case of its own equitable discretion. The court found that none of these arguments had merit.
However, the court did find unconstitutional the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the statute authorizing the Attorney General to bring this suit. The court adopted the defendants' argument that because the statute could be read to authorize suits not only against individuals in their public capacity as government actors but against individuals in their private capacity as citizens, that the subsection was itself unconstitutional. Therefore, due to lack of statutory authorization, the District Court dismissed the complaint. 172 F.Supp. 552 (1959).
Because the district court had found a federal statute unconstitutional, under the operative jurisdictional statute in the 1950s, the United States was allowed to appeal directly to the Supreme Court. In a unanimous opinion by Justice Brennan, the Supreme Court reversed the District Court's holding. Just because there were conceivable instances where a statute could be applied in a potentially unconstitutional manner did not make that statute facially unconstitutional, the Supreme Court held. In addition, the Court held that Congress had constitutional authority to allow the United States an action in support of private constitutional rights. It declined to address the scope of an appropriate injunction, because that would be assessed by the district court on remand. 362 U.S. 17 (1960).
The Supreme Court remanded the case, and after a five-day trial, Judge William Bootle of the Middle District of Georgia entered an opinion stating forty-two findings of fact that established both that the individuals identified in the complaint were improperly denied voting registration and that Terrell County maintained practices that were intentionally and systematically discriminatory. The court furthermore entered an injunction that the county must register certain individuals identified in the lawsuit as being wrongfully deprived of their right to vote, in addition to stopping the practices, such as heightened standards for Black applicants and administrative delays, that precipitated the deprivation. While the court maintained jurisdiction over the case and its injunction, it stopped short of declaring that the deprivations had been "pursuant to a pattern or practice," which would have triggered greater court oversight under the Civil Rights Act of 1957, including giving citizens the right to petition directly to the court for voter registration. 189 F.Supp. 121 (1960).
The United States subsequently filed a separate motion asking the court to so declare that the deprivations had occurred "pursuant to a pattern or practice." However, the court declined to do so, giving Terrell County the benefit of the presumption that it would follow the court's order. 203 F.Supp. 147 (1961).
Unfortunately, history shows that it did not, the county gaining the nickname "Terrible Terrell" among civil rights activists. We don't have a docket, but presumably this case is ended; the issues it raised were soon preempted by the more comprehensive Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Sean Drohan (7/7/2021)
Bootle, William Augustus (Georgia)
Brennan, William Joseph Jr. (District of Columbia)
Davis, Thomas Hoyt (Georgia)
Frankfurter, Felix (District of Columbia)
Evans, Frank O. (Georgia)
Last updated Aug. 30, 2023, 3:06 p.m.Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.
State / Territory: Georgia
Filing Date: Sept. 4, 1958
Closing Date: Jan. 24, 1961
Case Ongoing: No
The United States of America
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: No
Class Action Outcome: Not sought
Causes of Action:
Prevailing Party: Plaintiff
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief:
Order Duration: 1960 - None