United States v. Reese

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United States v. Reese
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued January 13–14, 1875
Decided March 27, 1876
Full case name United States v. Reese
Citations 92 U.S. 214 (more)
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Waite, joined by Swayne, Miller, Davis, Field, Strong, and Bradley
Dissent Clifford
Dissent Hunt
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XV

United States v. Reese was an 1876 voting rights case in which the United States Supreme Court narrowly construed the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provided that suffrage for male citizens could not be restricted due to race, color or previous condition of servitude.

This was the Supreme Court's first voting rights case under the Fifteenth Amendment and the Enforcement Act of 1870. A Kentucky electoral official had refused to register an African‐American's vote in a municipal election and was indicted under two sections of the 1870 act: section 2 required that administrative preliminaries to elections be conducted without regard to race, color, or previous condition of servitude; section 3 forbade wrongful refusal to register votes where a prerequisite step “required as foresaid” had been omitted.

The Court held that the Fifteenth Amendment did not confer the right of suffrage, but it prohibited exclusion from voting on racial grounds. The justices invalidated the operative section 3 of the Enforcement Act since it did not repeat the amendment's words about race, color, and servitude. They ruled that the section exceeded the scope of the Fifteenth Amendment.


Sue to this ruling, states began to develop means to exclude blacks from voting while keeping within the constraints of the 15th Amendment. They adopted such devices as poll taxes (which many poor black and white sharecroppers, who lived on credit, did not have ready cash to pay); literacy tests, subjectively administered by white election officials, who tended in practice to exclude even educated blacks which is often very rare; grandfather clauses, which admitted voters whose grandfathers had voted as of a certain date, which also excluded blacks; and more restrictive residency requirements, which disqualified people who had to move to follow work. As these measures were challenged in court, beginning with Mississippi's new constitution in 1890 that included them, the Supreme Court upheld their use, as they were required of all voters. The court did not believe it had a role in overseeing the practice of these measures, which white Democrats quickly used to disfranchise most black voters across the South. Through 1910, all the former Confederate states passed new constitutions or amendments to achieve disfranchisement.

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