Gaston County v. United States

PETITIONER: Gaston County
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Circuit Court of Mobile County

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1969)

CITATION: 395 US 285 (1969)
ARGUED: Apr 23, 1969 / Apr 24, 1969
DECIDED: Jun 02, 1969

Facts of the case


Media for Gaston County v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 23, 1969 in Gaston County v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 24, 1969 in Gaston County v. United States

Earl Warren:

Gaston County, North Carolina, appellant versus the United States.

Mr. Claiborne, you may continue with your argument.

Louis F. Claiborne:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

When the Court rose yesterday, I had just summarized the three respects in which in our view Gaston County has failed in its proof of showing that the application of literacy test in that jurisdiction had not had either purpose or effect or discriminating against the Negro franchise.

Those were first the failure to show that with respect to municipal elections carried on within the territory of the county.

Discrimination had not occurred within the preceding five years.

Second, a failure to rebut if a rebuttal was possible, the inference of discrimination that arises from the fact that white illiterates were registered and the literacy test waived this to them whereas same was not true with respect to Negro.

Potter Stewart:

Wasn't there some evidence that Negro illiterates have been registered or am I mistaken?

Louis F. Claiborne:

Mr. Justice Stewart, there was but I think there were nine arguably illiterate negroes who were brought as witnesses of those three may have failed the test for some eye defect rather than because of illiteracy.

Two had apparently memorized the oath just being under the regime of the oral test which involved reading the oath and to that extent had perhaps deceived the registrar.

They were illiterates and the remaining two or three year seemed to have been true illiterates whose illiteracy may have been known to the registrar.

It is significant that each of these nine witnesses came from precincts 7 in Gastonia, the one area predominantly Negro where the policy of the county authorities seem to have been more lenient toward Negro registration than elsewhere.

There's no evidence that anywhere else within the jurisdiction of the county are comparable waiver had take advice.

Potter Stewart:

It was in that particular precinct in the City of Gastonia where the large majority of the Negroes where county lived, wasn't it?

Louis F. Claiborne:

One-third of the population of the county of all races lives within that city.

I think less than half of the Negro population lives within the City of Gastonia.

I'm not clear whether those figures are of record or not.

I think it is clear however that fully have not considerably more live in the rural areas or in other municipalities of the Gastonia.

Potter Stewart:

I remember -- I think I remember a figure from the briefs or somewhere that only about 13% of the population of the out of city of the county population is Negro.

Louis F. Claiborne:

That is -- that is true over all within the county, I think it's actually 12% of the population of Gaston County today is Negro at one time, it seems to have been considerably larger proportionately than it is today.

On the other hand, the waiver for whites was clearly a matter of general practice throughout the county, they were 29 eyewitnesses.

Well, whose testimony is taken by deposition but who were fairly illiterates, many of them have been visited at their homes it made no effort to register on their own and some at least one notable example the applicant had indicated to the registrar that he didn't want to register and was registered nevertheless.

Most of them testified that they had informed the registrar that they were illiterate and nevertheless had been registered.

In addition to that evidence, the Government introduced registration forms from 70 white applicants which showed them illiterate in the full sense of being unable to even sign their names and the notations there which make it clear the registrar signed for them are sometimes quite candid can't write as the explanation sometimes as an “x” which is unexplained.

In many instances the notation excusing the applicant from signing is too nervous in some other instances the notation is left glasses at home -- eyeglasses.

The Government of course, the total here is something like 100, the Government I think reasonably infers from this number who were willing to testify or whose illiteracy was evident from their inability to even sign their names that the practice was quite prevalent and of course in no sense limited to this number who could be found as willing witnesses.

Now, finally and we think Gaston County has failed in its proof by failing to rebut the natural inference resulting from the educational disparity, the lack of equal educational opportunity afforded Negro voters of today when they were school children that the literacy test has borne more heavily on them and would continue to do so.

I want to make clear that in our view either of the first two grounds is sufficient to support the judgment denying exemption to Gaston County.

On the other hand, I proposed to focus on the third ground.

The reason for that is in part that the failure with respect to proof or concerning municipal elections while the sufficient ground does seem to us to be somewhat tentative one, it's a little -- the tail wagging of the dog.