James v. Bowman,
190 U.S. 127 (1903)

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U.S. Supreme Court

James v. Bowman, 190 U.S. 127 (1903)

James v. Bowman

No. 213

Argued March 16, 1903

Decided May 4, 1903

190 U.S. 127


Although § 5507, Rev.Stat., which provides for the punishment of individuals who hinder, control or intimidate others from exercising the right of suffrage guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment, purports on its face to be an exercise of the power granted to Congress by the Fifteenth Amendment, it cannot be sustained as an appropriate exercise of such power. That Amendment relates solely to action by the United States or by any state, and does not contemplate wrongful individual acts. While Congress has ample power in respect to elections of Representatives to Congress, § 5507 cannot be sustained under such general power, because Congress did not act in the exercise of such power.

On its face, the section is clearly an attempt to exercise power supposed to be conferred by the Fifteenth Amendment in respect to all elections, state and federal, and not in pursuance of the general control by Congress over particular elections. It would be judicial legislation for this Court to change a statute enacted to prevent bribery of persons named in the Fifteenth Amendment at all elections to one punishing bribery of any voter at certain elections.

Congress has the power to punish bribery at federal elections, but it is all important that a criminal statute should define clearly the offence which it purports to punish, and that, when so defined it should be within the limits of the power of the legislative body enacting it.

In December, 1900, an indictment was found by the United States District Court for the District of Kentucky against the appellee, Henry Bowman, and one Harry Weaver, based upon section 5507 of the Revised Statutes of the United States. The indictment charged in substance that certain "men of African descent, colored men, negroes, and not white men," being citizens of Kentucky and of the United States, were, by means of bribery, unlawfully and feloniously intimidated and prevented from exercising their lawful right of voting at a certain election held in the Fifth Congressional District of Kentucky on the 8th day of November, 1898, for the election of a representative in the Fifty-sixth Congress of the United States.

Page 190 U. S. 128

No allegation is made that the bribery was because of the race, color, or previous condition of servitude of the men bribed. The appellee, Henry Bowman, having been arrested and held in default of bail, sued out a writ of habeas corpus on the ground of the unconstitutionality of section 5507. The district judge granted the writ, following reluctantly the decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Lackey v. United States, 107 F. 114. From that judgment the government has taken this appeal.

Section 5507 is as follows:

"SEC. 5507. Every person who prevents, hinders, controls, or intimidates another from exercising, or in exercising the right of suffrage, to whom that right is guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, by means of bribery or threats of depriving such person of employment or occupation, or of ejecting such person from a rented house, lands, or other property, or by threats of refusing to renew leases or contracts for labor, or by threats of violence to himself or family, shall be punished as provided in the preceding section."

The Fifteenth Amendment provides:

"SEC. 1. 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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

"SEC. 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. "

Page 190 U. S. 135

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