Katzenbach v. Morgan
384 U.S. 641 (1966)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Katzenbach v. Morgan, 384 U.S. 641 (1966)

Katzenbach v. Morgan

No. 847

Argued April 18, 1966

Decided June 13, 1966*

384 U.S. 641


Appellees, registered voters in New York City, brought this suit to challenge the constitutionality of § 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the extent that the provision prohibits enforcement of the statutory requirement for literacy in English as applied to numerous New York City residents from Puerto Rico who, because of that requirement, had previously been denied the right to vote. Section 4(e) provides that no person who has completed the sixth grade in a public school, or an accredited private school, in Puerto Rico in which the language of instruction was other than English shall be disfranchised for inability to read or write English. A three-judge District Court granted appellees declaratory and injunctive relief, holding that, in enacting § 4(e), Congress had exceeded its powers.

Held: Section 4(e) is a proper exercise of the powers under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, and, by virtue of the Supremacy Clause, New York's English literacy requirement cannot be enforced to the extent it conflicts with § 4(e). Pp. 384 U. S. 646-658.

(a) Though the States have power to fix voting qualifications, they cannot do so contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment or any other constitutional provision. P. 384 U. S. 647.

(b) Congress' power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to enact legislation prohibiting enforcement of a state law is not limited to situations where the state law has been adjudged to violate the provisions of the Amendment which Congress sought to enforce. It is therefore the Court's task here to determine not whether New York's English literacy requirement, as applied, violates the Equal Protection Clause, but whether § 4(e)'s prohibition against that requirement is "appropriate legislation" to enforce the Clause. Lassiter v. Northampton Election Bd., 360 U. S. 45, distinguished. Pp. 384 U. S. 648-650.

Page 384 U. S. 642

(c) Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment is a positive grant of legislative power authorizing Congress to exercise its discretion in determining the need for and nature of legislation to secure Fourteenth Amendment guarantees. The test of McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 17 U. S. 421, is to be applied to determine whether a congressional enactment is "appropriate legislation" under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 384 U. S. 650-651.

(d) Section 4(e) was enacted to enforce the Equal Protection Clause as a measure to secure nondiscriminatory treatment by government for numerous Puerto Ricans residing in New York, both in the imposition of voting qualifications and the provision or administration of governmental services. Pp. 384 U. S. 652-653.

(e) Congress had an adequate basis for deciding that § 4(e) was plainly adapted to that end. Pp. 384 U. S. 653-656.

(f) Section 4(e) does not itself invidiously discriminate in violation of the Fifth Amendment for failure to extend relief to those educated in non-American flag schools. A reform measure such as § 4(e) is not invalid because Congress might have gone further than it did, and did not eliminate all the evil at the same time. Pp. 384 U. S. 656-658.

247 F. Supp. 196, reversed.

Page 384 U. S. 643

Primary Holding
Any law that the federal government enacts under the Enabling Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment trumps any state law or constitutional provision that conflicts with it.
Literacy tests historically had been used as a means of discriminating against minorities during the voting process. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to combat this tool by making some literacy tests illegal. One particular provision, Section 4(e), made it illegal to remove the right to vote from someone who could not read or write English if that person had a sixth-grade education in Puerto Rico. This was an effort to prevent efforts to disenfranchise the Puerto Rican population in New York City.

A challenge by registered voters in New York argued that Congress had violated federalism principles under the Tenth Amendment and did not have the power under the Fourteenth Amendment to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Prior to the law, the Supreme Court's 1959 decision in Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections had found that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments did not prohibit literacy tests.

A three-judge panel of the federal District Court for the District of Columbia agreed with the plaintiffs, imposing an injunction against the law's enforcement.



  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Earl Warren
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • Tom C. Clark
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Abe Fortas

The Court's interpretation of Section 4(e) was based in part on a standard from the early-19th century case of McCulloch v. Maryland, which held that, under the Necessary and Proper Clause, Congress could pass laws that were appropriate to achieving the objectives that it sought. Brennan found that Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment gives Congress substantial control over determining what laws may be needed to make the Amendment effective. Even though Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act might have gone beyond the minimum of the rights that the Court would recognize, it still was constitutional because Congress is free to create civil rights above what the Court provides. (It cannot remove rights that the Court permits, however, so judicially recognized rights are a floor but not a ceiling.)


  • William Orville Douglas (Author)


  • John Marshall Harlan II (Author)
  • Potter Stewart

Harlan was skeptical that Congress could expand upon the scope of judicially recognized rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. He saw courts as the only branch of government that could validly interpret constitutional rights without violating the separation of powers. Harlan felt that Congress could only enforce the rights that the Court had judicially recognized without adding new substantive rights.

Case Commentary

This case marked the clearest articulation of the notion that more than one branch of government could interpret the Constitution and that Congress could offer broader but not narrower ranges of rights. Its approach may have been discredited after City of Boerne v. Flores, another case ninvolving Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. In that 1997 case, the Court would lean closer to Harlan's dissent in Katzenbach by suggesting that the separation of powers left the power to interpret the Constitution in the hands of courts.

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