Williams v. Mississippi - 170 U.S. 213 (1898)


U.S. Supreme Court

Williams v. Mississippi, 170 U.S. 213 (1898)

Williams v. Mississippi

No. 531

Argued and submitted March 18, 1898

Decided April 25, 1898

170 U.S. 213

Syllabus

The provisions in section 241 of the Constitution of Mississippi prescribing the qualifications for electors, in section 242, conferring upon the legislature power to enact laws to carry those provisions into effect, in section 244, making ability to read any section of the Constitution or to understand it when read, a necessary qualification to a legal voter, and of section 264, making it a necessary qualification for a grand or petit juror that he shall be able to read and write, and sections 2358, 3643 and 3644 of the Mississippi Code of 1892, with regard to elections, do not, on their face, discriminate between the white and negro races, and do not amount to a denial of the equal protection of the law, secured by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and it has not been shown that their actual administration was evil, but only that evil was possible under them.

At June term, 1896, of the Circuit Court of Washington County, Mississippi, the plaintiff in error was indicted by a grand jury composed entirely of white men for the crime of murder. On the 15th day of June, he made a motion to quash the indictment which was in substance as follows, omitting repetitions and retaining the language of the motion as nearly as possible:

"Now comes the defendant in this cause, Henry Williams by name, and moves the Circuit Court of Washington County, Mississippi, to quash the indictment herein filed, and upon

Page 170 U. S. 214

which it is proposed to try him for the alleged offense of murder: (1) because the laws by which the grand jury was selected, organized, summoned, and charged, which presented the said indictment, are unconstitutional and repugnant to the spirit and letter of the Constitution of the United States of America, Fourteenth Amendment thereof, in this, that the Constitution prescribes the qualifications of electors, and that, to be a juror, one must be an elector; that the Constitution also requires that those offering to vote shall produce to the election officers satisfactory evidence that they have paid their taxes; that the legislature is to provide means for enforcing the Constitution, and, in the exercise of this authority, enacted section 3643, also section 3644 of 1892, which respectively provide that the election commissioners shall appoint three election managers, and that the latter shall be judges of the qualifications of electors, and are required 'to examine on oath any person duly registered and offering to vote touching his qualifications as an elector.'"

And then the motion states that

"the registration roll is not prima facie evidence of an elector's right to vote, but the list of those persons having been passed upon by the various district election managers of the county to compose the registration book of voters as named in section 2358 of said Code of 1892, and that there was no registration books of voters prepared for the guidance of said officers of said county at the time said grand jury was drawn."

It is further alleged that there is no statute of the state providing for the procurement of any registration books of voters of said county, and (it is alleged in detail) the terms of the Constitution and the section of the Code mentioned, and the discretion given to the officers,

"is but a scheme on the part of the framers of that Constitution to abridge the suffrage of the colored electors in the State of Mississippi on account of the previous condition of servitude by granting a discretion to the said officers as mentioned in the several sections of the constitution of the state and the statute of the state adopted under the said constitution. The use of said discretion can be and has been used in the said Washington County to the end complained of."

After some detail to the

Page 170 U. S. 215

same effect, it is further alleged that the constitutional convention was composed of 134 members, only one of whom was a negro. That under prior laws, there were 190,000 colored voters and 69,000 white voters. The makers of the new constitution arbitrarily refused to submit it to the voters of the state for approval, but ordered it adopted, and an election to be held immediately under it, which election was held under the election ordinances of the said constitution in November, 1891, and the legislature assembled in 1892, and enacted the statutes complained of for the purpose to discriminate aforesaid, and but for that the "defendant's race would have been represented impartially on the grand jury which presented this indictment," and hence he is deprived of the equal protection of the laws of the state. It is further alleged that the state has not reduced its representation in Congress, and generally for the reasons aforesaid, and because the indictment should have been returned under the constitution of 1869 and statute of 1889, it is null and void. The motion concludes as follows:

"Further, the defendant is a citizen of the United States, and, for the many reasons herein named, asks that the indictment be quashed, and he be recognized to appear at the next term of the court."

This motion was accompanied by four affidavits, subscribed and sworn to before the clerk of the court on June 15, 1896, to-wit:

1st. An affidavit of the defendant,

"who, being duly sworn, deposes and says that the facts set forth in the foregoing motion are true to the best of his knowledge, of the language of the constitution and the statute of the state mentioned in said motion, and upon information and belief as to the other facts, and that the affiant verily believes the information to be reliable and true."

2d. Another affidavit of the defendant,

"who, being first duly sworn, deposes and says that he has heard the motion to quash the indictment herein read, and that he thoroughly understands the same, and that the facts therein stated are true, to the best of his knowledge and belief. As to the existence of the several sections of the state constitution and the

Page 170 U. S. 216

several sections of the state statute mentioned in said motion to quash, further affiant states that the facts stated in said motion, touching the manner and method peculiar of the said election, by which the delegates to said constitutional convention were elected, and the purpose for which said objectionable provisions were enacted, and the fact that the said discretion complained of as aforesaid has abridged the suffrage of the number mentioned therein, for the purpose named therein -- all such material allegations are true, to the best of affiant's knowledge and belief, and the fact of the race and color of the prisoner in this cause, and that race and color of the voters of the state whose elective franchise is abridged as alleged therein, and the fact that they who are discriminated against, as aforesaid, are citizens of the United States, and that, prior to the adoption of the said constitution and said statute the said state was represented in Congress by seven representatives in the lower house and two senators, and that since the adoption of the said objectionable laws, there has been no reduction of said representation in Congress. All allegations herein, as stated in said motion aforesaid, are true to the best of affiant's knowledge and belief."

3d. An affidavit of John H. Dixon,

"who, being duly sworn, deposes and says that he had heard the motion to quash the indictment filed in the Henry Williams case, and thoroughly understands the same, and that he has also heard the affidavit sworn to by said Henry Williams carefully read to him, and thoroughly understands the same. And in the same manner the facts are sworn to in the said affidavit, and the same facts alleged therein upon information and belief are hereby adopted as in all things the sworn allegations of affiant, and the facts alleged therein, as upon knowledge and belief, are made hereby the allegations of affiant upon his knowledge and belief."

4th. An affidavit of C. J. Jones,

"who, being duly sworn, deposes and says that he has read carefully the affidavit filed in the John Dixon case sworn to by him (said C. J. Jones), and that he, said affiant, thoroughly understands the same, and adopts the said allegations therein as his deposition in

Page 170 U. S. 217

this case upon hearing this motion to quash the indictment herein, and that said allegations are in all things correct and true as therein alleged."

The motion was denied, and the defendant excepted. A motion was then made to remove the cause to the United States circuit court, based substantially on the same grounds as the motion to quash the indictment. This was also denied, and an exception reserved.

The accused was tried by a jury composed entirely of white men, and convicted. A motion for a new trial was denied, and the accused sentenced to be hanged. An appeal to the supreme court was taken, and the judgment of the court below was affirmed.

The following are the assignments of error:

1. The trial court erred in denying motion to quash the indictment, and petitioned for removal.

2. The trial court erred in denying motion for new trial, and pronouncing death penalty under the verdict.

3. The supreme court erred in affirming the judgment of the trial court.

The sections of the Constitution of Mississippi and the laws referred to in the motion of the plaintiff in error are printed in the margin. *

Page 170 U. S. 219



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